Manufacturing industry works to diversify West Virginia workforce
June 19, 2016
CLARKSBURG — Today’s workforce has to keep pace with new technology and methods in the manufacturing sector.
Dealing in the areas of advanced energy, chemicals and advanced materials, biosciences and biometrics, Anne Barth, executive director of TechConnect in Charleston, said today’s manufacturing industry is not the manufacturing done by the state’s forefathers.
“It’s pretty exciting to me to see not only the opportunity for our manufacturing, but with so much manufacturing moving into other sectors,” Barth said. “We believe that with the proper training, existing companies can pivot into new sectors. They can perhaps start exporting goods and services to get back on their feet.”
With that goal in mind, TechConnect began a program titled “Scale Up West Virginia” after being awarded a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration last fall.
“Scale Up West Virginia is designed to help innovators and entrepreneurs around the state to connect them with resources to increase their efficiency, with the goal of creating new jobs and businesses here in West Virginia,” Barth said.
As part of the Scale Up West Virginia program, TechConnect is partnering with five entities throughout the state, including the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing, the West Virginia Manufacturing Extension Partnership at the WVU Industrial Extension, the INNOVA Commercialization Group at the High Technology Foundation, the Center for Applied Research and Technology at Bluefield State College and Chem Assist in Charleston.
“The idea is that people who are out in the state either pivoting into new industry and sectors often need some help to get off the ground,” Barth said. “Our overall goal of the grant is to develop new jobs and industry in the state.”
Jerry Biser, director of the West Virginia Manufacturing Extension Partnership, said the best part of TechConnect’s Scale Up West Virginia is the U.S. Economic Development Administration grant that makes assistance available to those small companies that maybe didn’t have the funding for such training before.
“It provides money to us and other organizations that allows us to go out and do work with small companies free of charge,” he said. “We can come in, work with you, help you develop the program idea and maybe develop some plans, and all of that is free of charge.”
Mike Friel, public information specialist for RCBI, has seen entrepreneurs and businesses benefit greatly from having these tools available.
“It’s a challenging time for businesses of all types in West Virginia, but what we’re seeing is that challenges are met by a new spirit of entrepreneurism and innovation,” Friel said. “What we do is provide direct technical assistance to entrepreneurs and companies, helping them bridge the gap between concepts and ideas in the creation of a new product.”
RCBI’s expertise centers on engineering services and advanced manufacturing solutions, such as 3D printing.
“People have great ideas here in West Virginia, but sometimes they need a little technical assistance or access to equipment and manufacturing technologies that will help them develop and commercialize those ideas,” Friel said.
RCBI also has been involved with a second program titled Innovate West Virginia, which has been able to provide similar assistance for West Virginia businesses.
“Marshall University did an economic impact study of these programs,” he said. “They found that between 2012 and 2015, these programs helped generate $66 million in sales for West Virginia manufacturers and directly led to the creation of 318 jobs.”
That kind of economic impact is crucial for West Virginia, Friel said.
“I think businesses and entrepreneurs here in West Virginia need all the help they can get right now as our economy goes through this transition,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to help people succeed.”
One company RCBI provided design assistance to is Petitto Mine Co. in Morgantown, which wanted to print 3D-scale models of its mule mining equipment.
“The company uses these scale models for promotional and demonstration purposes as it expands its business into overseas markets,” Friel said.
Those models not only are easy to transport to those promotions, but can help explain services more easily.
“They use the models to explain the different features of the equipment, and it really helps them in countries where English is not the official language,” he said. “Being able to point out features on the equipment helps overcome some of the language barriers you would face if you just handed them a written description.”
A Philippi-based company, New Vision Renewable Energy, has also greatly benefitted from RCBI’s resources.
“We helped them with computer assisted design, and we 3D printed prototypes of a basketball rim that uses solar power lighting,” Friel said. “We’re in the process of working with them on a soccer goal that uses the same concept.”
Being involved with so many companies statewide, Biser agrees that retooling of the industries is vital.
“There’s a lot of manufacturing companies in West Virginia whose business was based on supporting the coal industry,” he said. “Now with the coal industry being down as it is, a lot of those businesses are really suffering. We’re working to find new directions for these companies to go in and different industries that they can support instead.”
With new technology and tools such as 3D printing, Biser said that kind of shift isn’t as difficult as it may sound.
“Primarily right now, everything is focused on innovations of the field and diversifying our companies,” he said. “Personally, I would like to see some more automotive supply chains here, perhaps furniture manufacturing and different things to take advantage of the resources and skills that we have here.”