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Published: Wednesday, 2/9/2011

States urged to spur manufacturing tech

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Ohio and other states need to reinvigorate their manufacturing sectors, and a way to do that is through creation of advanced manufacturing centers that could help companies take advantage of new technologies, perform research, and better utilize a state's economic development resources, a new report released Tuesday said.

The Brookings Institution report released Tuesday said America's manufacturing base is in a slump, losing 31 percent of its jobs and seeing its contribution to gross domestic product shrink from 14 percent to just 11 percent between 2000 and 2009.

States have tried to address the problem, but their policies have emphasized incentives to attract and retain manufacturing rather than improve existing manufacturing or support new manufacturers, argue the report's authors, Susan Helper and Howard Wial.

Also, state-funded applied engineering research is rarely focused on the kinds of problems manufacturers face in adapting to new technologies, they said.

What Ohio and other states should do is create the manufacturing centers, spending about $9 million a year on each one, that could do research that advances knowledge and is of practical use so that a manufacturing base can use the latest technologies, thereby increasing manufacturing output, the authors say.

Norm Chagnon, executive director of Ohio's Third Frontier Commission, thinks the Brookings report's ideas are good ones that Ohio adopted 25 years ago when it set up its system of seven Edison Technology Centers, which focus on technology development and assistance in seven key manufacturing sectors found in Ohio. For example, the Toledo-based Center for Innovative Food Technology helps food manufacturers adopt new technologies.

More recently, the Third Frontier Initiative set up a series of Wright Centers for Innovation that also help with research on new technologies for various manufacturing sectors. "They are more intensive on the research and new types of technology. Part of what they do is to infuse new technologies and the uses of existing manufacturers together," Mr. Chagnon said.

Eric Burkland, president of the Ohio Manufacturers Association, said how a state, region, or country can gain competitive edges by utilizing new technologies is a hot topic. "In Ohio, there's a widespread feeling that work force development policies have been underweighted for upgrading the skills of the current work force," he said.

"We need to find a different way to connect public resources -- universities and labs -- to day-to-day realities of manufacturing. " he said.

Greg Knudson, director of the Rocket Ventures fund at the Regional Growth Partnership in Toledo, said the Edison centers are helpful because many small manufacturers don't know how to diversify or leverage the new technologies. But there must be constant re-examination of what the Edison centers offer to ensure they are not falling behind, he said.

"Like anything, you can't stay on the same path. You've got to improve," he added.

Tom Brady, founder, chairman, and president of a local high-tech manufacturing company, said improving manufacturing is laudable, but advanced centers may not work for all industries.

"Take plastics." Mr. Brady said. "It's widely distributed in Ohio with 2,000 or so small plastic manufacturers. How you really assist those manufacturers is not an easy thing to do, especially if you create a central hub."

A better idea, he said, is prepare the way so free enterprise can do what makes sense and then provide assistance.

"Typically, the more you prepare the field for people to play in, the fewer entrepreneurs that are going to show up. So get government out of the way a bit and everyone will be better off," he said.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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