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Q&A: MAGNET's Daniel Berry on the changing environment for manufacturers

President and Chief Executive Officer of MAGNET, Dr. Daniel Berry. Photos Bob Perkoski
President and Chief Executive Officer of MAGNET, Dr. Daniel Berry. Photos Bob Perkoski
Could you describe some of the current challenges manufacturers in northeast Ohio are facing?

The big one for companies everywhere, but acutely in northeast Ohio, is to recover from the recession. Manufacturing took a major hit, but we're starting to see companies starting to come out of it. They're a lot leaner than they were. We're starting to see some of our manufacturers begin hiring again, but they're hiring a different kind of people than they had on board in 2008 -- a much more skilled type of worker.

How is MAGNET responding?

MAGNET has continued its emphasis on helping companies get the most out of the resources they have using tools like lean manufacturing and lean product development and Six Sigma. We're also focusing a lot of attention on helping companies improve their bottom line efficiencies and helping them generate more revenue and grow. We've had an historic expertise here in new product development. We're now looking at how we build on that capability and perhaps focus on a number of opportunities to help companies become more innovative and grow their operations through things like market diversification, new markets or entirely new products in old markets. We have a big regional initiative under way to manufacturers that has us working with groups like NorTech and WIRE-net and the Ohio Aerospace Institute and others to figure out how we can connect the capabilities of what we would call our old line manufacturers and emerging markets that have real potential for the region.

In October MAGNET was awarded $285,000 by The National Institute of Standards and Technology Manufacturing Extension Program to work with NorTech in helping companies innovate into advanced and alternative energy sectors. Is that what you're referring to?

That's a part of it. It's for two specific opportunities in advanced energy: biomass conversion and electrification of vehicles. Those are two of the targets that NorTech has been working on for northeast Ohio, and we jointly went in to NIST with this proposal and were fortunate to have it funded for the first year. Our hope is that we can show sufficient progress to attract the second-year funding. It was submitted as a two-year proposal.

What has emerged from the grant?

The first phase of the project involves NorTech holding a number of informational meetings to which companies are invited to learn more bout market opportunities. I think they've had three or four sessions with 25 to 30 companies showing up at each. There's interest, but it hasn't yet translated to specific engagements with companies. But it will over the next few months.

Are more manufacturers saying we need to get into advanced materials, advanced energy, or maybe we need to retool for another industry? Any trends that you're seeing?

What we're trying to do is build capacity to collectively make companies aware of the opportunities. But how they do that is very much a tailored, individualized strategy. MAGNET has the responsibility for serving the automotive sector statewide, so we've been in conversations with some of the big OEMs like Honda and Ford, and some of them are looking for new types of materials to be used in production. There is a push among the big three to become more green, sustainable enterprises, and they're looking at asking their suppliers to also become more green and sustainable, so there is push to look at the materials that are going into products. We'll be working with some of the companies in the automotive supply chain to help them understand what some of the opportunities are and we'll probably do some collaboration with one of our sister Edison centers, PolymerOhio.

One of the things you're heavily involved with is outreach to young people. Could you tell us about Dream It, Do It?

Dream it, Do it, was a campaign where we were doing billboard advertising, media advertising, to try to attract interest by young people in manufacturing as a career opportunity. And it's evolved into Ambassadors -- several programs that have us working closely with schools to take manufacturing executives into the schools to educate young people and teachers and career counselors about what the career opportunities are around manufacturing. We also have a partnership with WVIZ, our public television station here in the Cleveland area, where we are doing educational programs with companies and panels that show the different careers within that particular company. The panels are beamed into classrooms across the state as an educational mechanism.

At one time fewer young people were choosing manufacturing as a career. Are you seeing that start to turn around?

It's still a challenge. There's a widespread perception among the parents of students who are heavy influences in career thinking that manufacturing is dead and dying and that there are no opportunities. So that's one challenge, reversing that perception. Another misconception is that manufacturing is dirty and grimy. We have a lot of companies we can show them that dispel that notion. Many of today's manufacturing jobs are what I would call the high-tech opportunities, and we've been very involved in the STEM movement science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Those are the same disciplines that are required in the new economy manufacturing jobs.

When you look at manufacturing statewide and in northeast Ohio, are there some things you think need to happen on the policy front?

From a selfish perspective, we're very hopeful that the value of programs like the Edison and Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program is recognized by the new administration. We think it will be, because we're very much focused on what we think is one of the highest priorities in the state, and that's job creation. The resources that the state has put into supporting the Edison centers has been very important to building our capacity to work with, particularly, the small to mid-size manufacturers in the state who probably can't afford to access some of the consulting services that are available in the markets. And then I think to continue to track the infrastructure issues that are critical to manufacturing: the tax situation, the cost of energy, the cost of labor, doing what we can within the state to create an environment where those are affordable and easily accessible by the manufacturing community. And I think the new governor has, as a first step, started to take a look at the regulations in the state and how they may be hampering business performance and growth, and that's a positive development too.
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