AS I SEE IT: Innovating growth in Worcester and beyond
November 24, 2015 : Worcester Telegram & Gazette, by Marty Jones and Walter Towner
When Independent Plating, a Worcester manufacturer specializing in metal finishing, wanted a better understanding of the industrial capabilities of its plating line, the 75-year-old company faced a decision.
Independent Plating is in a Goldilocks stage -- successful post-startup company, but not yet an industry giant -- typical of many Massachusetts manufacturers that are established companies producing component parts such as jet engine parts and medical device elements that are integral to larger equipment. Since the recession, manufacturers face a tension between seeing opportunities for growth on the one hand but a lack of resources on the other that would allow these businesses to hire more workers to tackle greater demand.
To bridge the gap between its available resources and potential growth opportunities, Independent Plating made use of a new program that brings to bear a historical driver of the Commonwealth’s economy: brainpower.
Massachusetts boasts 114 colleges and universities, with nine in Worcester alone and more in greater Worcester. The power of these institutions extends beyond their 36,000 graduate and undergraduate students. Colleges such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute can also call on faculty, staff and alumni to tackle complex challenges. It was WPI's network and long history of supporting manufacturers that made the school an easy choice for MassDevelopment, the state's quasi-public finance and development authority, to select WPI as one of four manufacturing Innovation Centers in Massachusetts designated to help small- to medium-sized manufacturers grow.
In February, MassDevelopment selected Algonquin Industries, Boston Engineering Corporation, the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, and WPI to provide such services and expertise to companies that employ 100 or fewer employees and need assistance in product development, prototyping, scaling up, cost reduction and other areas. MassDevelopment pays the lesser of 75 percent or $75,000 of the cost of a contract between a manufacturing company and the Innovation Center of choice. Companies work directly with the Innovation Center. Since the program’s launch, 60 companies have applied through the four centers and 10 projects are underway so far. Independent Plating was WPI's first project; the school has others in the pipeline. MassDevelopment has committed $1.3 million overall, and once the projects are complete, hopes to better understand the multiplier effect of this work on jobs created.
"Working with the WPI Innovation Center has been a mutually beneficial experience," according to Charles Flanagan, president and CEO of Worcester Manufacturing, which owns Independent Plating. "The students obtained valuable experience working in industry and the manufacturers receive resources and great young minds to develop innovative manufacturing solutions."
Each Innovation Center offers its own type of expertise, and WPI’s position as the higher education institution among the group provides a range of benefits for Central Massachusetts manufacturers. With Independent Plating, a team of undergraduate industrial engineering students and graduate students in mechanical engineering and materials science created a data collection system for the production line that improved data accuracy and corresponding assessments benefiting Independent Plating's competitiveness. Another business that benefited from an Innovation Center grant was Dynamo Micropower in Somerville, a developer and manufacturer of fuel-flexible small, gas turbine-based power generation systems for the oil and gas industry. Dynamo Mircopower worked with Boston Engineering to revise an engine controls design, which cut system production costs and maintained high performance and reliability.
Depending on the company, WPI can tailor a team with multiple engineering and science specialties in helping companies develop products and in turn create more jobs. Innovation Center projects also open a pipeline for new employees, as graduate and undergraduate students can fill positions as the businesses succeed in scaling up and hiring more workers.
The Commonwealth has developed a robust and vibrant entrepreneurial environment thanks to incubators such as Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives in Worcester, a lifesciences incubator in the city, plus Greentown Labs in Somerville, and EforAll in Lowell, and cutting-edge companies such as Bose, New Balance and Raytheon. The opportunities are great. The U.S. Census reported in 2013 that Worcester County alone hosted more than 950 manufacturing establishments that employed about 33,000 workers, a large number of companies and workers that could benefit from attention to their small- and medium-sized enterprises. Working with WPI and the other three Innovation Centers, MassDevelopment hopes to continue to help grow numbers such as these. These collaborations are highlighting the brainpower available to drive future economic growth in the Commonwealth.
Marty Jones is president and CEO of MassDevelopment, the Commonwealth’s economic-development authority. Walter Towner, Ph.D., is an assistant teaching professor in WPI’s Foisie School of Business and co-directs the school’s Center for Innovative Manufacturing Solutions along with Toby Bergstrom, the school’s Manufacturing Laboratories Operations Manager.
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