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McClatchy-Tribune  08/16/2014 12:01 AM ET
New institute will help region's manufacturers innovate and compete [The Buffalo News, N.Y. :: ]

Aug. 16--Adam Pratt's customers in the auto and aerospace industries are constantly pushing for lighter versions of the fasteners made by Sherex Fastening Solutions.

But for a company with 32 employees, it can be costly to replace conventional steel fasteners with new models made from lightweight materials such as carbon fiber.

That's why Pratt, Sherex's president, hopes for big help from the new advanced manufacturing center that is coming to Buffalo as part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Buffalo Billion economic development initiative.

The $45 million Buffalo Niagara Institute for Advanced Manufacturing Competitiveness, which is expected to open by the end of the year, doesn't get the attention of a solar-panel factory or a gaggle of Medical Campus buildings. But the institute is aimed at something just as important: a high-tech revival of manufacturing, Buffalo's economic engine of the last century.

Despite the decades-long decline in local factory work, manufacturers still account for one of every 11 jobs in the region -- currently about 50,000 local jobs -- and those jobs tend to pay above-average wages. The region is home to more than 2,000 small- to medium-sized manufacturers.

The institute will give local manufacturers like Sherex, based in the Town of Tonawanda, access to research equipment and other tools that they can't afford on their own.

"A lot of attention has been given to new business attraction, but the reality is we already have an enormous number of manufacturers in Western New York," said Howard Zemsky, the local developer who is the co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council. "Helping them grow is an important part of our strategy."

"We're going into composite materials and exotic alloys," Pratt said."How do we get the advantage of using lightweight materials but still do it in a cost-effective manner?

"We want to be on the forefront of fastener technology," he added.

'This isn't Henry Ford'

The creation of the advanced manufacturing institute has its roots in the Regional Economic Development Council's study of the local economy three years ago, which identified advanced manufacturing as a sector in which the Buffalo Niagara region has a competitive advantage over other parts of the country because of a skilled workforce, a strong transportation network and the low-cost hydropower available to industry.

And while much of the low- and middle-skill factory work has shifted to cheaper markets in Mexico or overseas, the higher-skill work associated with advanced manufacturing has proven to be more resilient in Buffalo and throughout the United States.

"Focusing on advanced manufacturing is the way to go," said Michael Ulbrich, a former Morgan Stanley executive who was hired in June to be the president of the Buffalo center.

"This isn't Henry Ford's production line kind of manufacturing anymore," said Ulbrich, a Lancaster native and an industrial engineer by training. "We're talking about robotics and nanoscale and things that didn't exist a few years ago."

Work currently is underway to build the institute, which will be located in the former SmartPill building at 847 Main St. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus bought the building with an $8 million grant from Empire State Development, and the institute is expected to stay in the Main Street location for at least the first five years of its existence.

EWI, a Columubs, Ohio-based non-profit engineering services research and development firm, will operate the advanced manufacturing center. While the physical site is months away from being ready, EWI officials have been working for months to develop detailed plans for the Buffalo institute, meeting with upwards of 150 representatives from 75 local manufacturers and industry groups to find out what kind of help they need and what type of equipment would be the most beneficial for the center to have.

"We want to help them evolve as manufacturers," Ulrich said.

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