Published August 4, 2017
Manufacturing is in Western New York’s DNA. The region designs and builds things. It always has.
And so it was fortunate that part of the mission outlined and funded by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development plan was devoted to elevating the region’s manufacturing abilities. The goal is to help catapult traditional manufacturers into the fast-paced world of advanced manufacturing and to keep sophisticated manufacturers advancing.
The primary tool for that lofty task is Buffalo Manufacturing Works, a collection of cutting-edge machines and top-level engineering minds with the task of applying research and development help to manufacturers large and small. UB played a pivotal role in creating the center 2½ years ago, from helping set its policy goals to training many of its staff and helping with research. As a founding partner of the center, UB also helped formulate the mission and continues to guide its growth.
“If a company has the drive and the desire to innovate, we can help them,” says Michael Ulbrich, president of Buffalo Manufacturing Works. “It’s really regardless of size. We’ve worked with 50-person manufacturers and 5,000-person companies. It’s really a question of do they have that innovation mindedness? Do they have the view that technology can help them be a better company? If so, we can help companies that are behind the times leapfrog, and if they are leading, we can help them continue to lead.”
Accomplishing these goals takes impressive machines, and Buffalo Manufacturing Works has them, including one of the world’s largest 3-D metal printers that can make metal objects up to 5 feet by 5 feet by 7 feet.
“The machinery is wide-ranging, and we’re focused on three technology verticals,” Ulbrich says. “Additive manufacturing, especially metals additive manufacturing, often called 3-D printing; advanced automation, a lot of robotics and vision systems and controls; and metrology and inspection technologies to allow manufacturers to improve their quality.”
The center has engineers on staff who work with companies to solve their problems or fashion systems to help them expand.
“We’ve worked with about 100 companies on a number of different projects,” Ulbrich says. “Some are small testing and others are large, almost yearlong projects when we are designing testing and implementing systems.
“First we identify a company’s needs and then we can design the system for them.”
For companies investigating how to adopt new technology, the engineers at the center do an “advanced manufacturing implementation strategy” outlining ways the companies can use new technology to reach their goals.
At Bak USA, a social enterprise business that builds computers in downtown Buffalo, the engineers at Buffalo Manufacturing Works studied the operation and came up with a plan to bring some robotic assistance to the people assembling the computers. Called “cobots,” the co-working devices handle the repetitive screw-turning that was wearing on the assemblers.
As a social enterprise, creating meaningful work is a vital component of the business model at Bak USA, so having robots assist, rather than replace, humans was essential.
“They were very sensitive to our requirements to maintain the people-centric part of our operation,” says Christian Bak, vice president of the product team at Bak USA. “I think what they’re trying to achieve — growing the local manufacturing base and making sure the legacy manufacturers continue to evolve and survive — that’s something we believe in, too.
“We want to see the small manufacturers survive and thrive all over the country.”
Bak USA is following a long-term path that Buffalo Manufacturing Works helped design with the goal of increasing efficiency 30 percent.
At the other end of the manufacturing spectrum is Moog, a highly sophisticated engineering company that serves the aerospace, defense, aviation and medical industries. Moog has used Buffalo Manufacturing Works to stay up to date on the latest technology and to determine which machines are best for its purposes.
“They’re able to look across multiple platforms, to look at several brand names,” says Connie Buynacek, Moog’s director of advanced manufacturing. “They can cut through the sales speak and assess what needs to be accomplished and how to do it.”
The expertise at Buffalo Manufacturing Works helps Moog foresee if a new technology will enhance operations.
“We’re more than capable to go out and buy a machine, but how do we really know it’s going to do what it needs to do?” Buynacek says. “I’m not going to buy a machine that can cost a million dollars to determine if it works.”
The majority of the center’s work is project-based, but companies also can get involved by purchasing memberships. The cost varies with the size of the company. Small firms can join for a $2,500 annual fee, and the largest companies pay $25,000 a year. For that the companies get access to the center’s engineering staff for guidance. For a company with a small engineering staff or none at all, Buffalo Manufacturing Works can step in and enhance a firm’s brain power.
“We think there is a lot of value for the manufacturing base,” Ulbrich says.
The center recently hosted a large convention of the world’s top manufacturing companies interested in 3-D printing.
“We had a group of 110 manufacturers from all over the world,” Ulbrich says. “Aerospace, defense, medical device, heavy industry — they were quite impressed.”
Called the Additive Manufacturing Consortium, the event drew academic, research, government and industry representatives, and allowed local companies like Post Process Technologies, which has designed systems to clean printed parts, and Vader Systems, which is developing a liquid 3-D metal printer, to present to the assembled companies.
The creation of Buffalo Manufacturing Works coincides with the revival of the Buffalo Niagara region’s economy on a larger scale, and Ulbrich sees this on a personal level. A Buffalo native who left town to work at JP Morgan in New York City and London, he returned about three years ago, drawn by the opportunity to get involved and have an impact on the region’s revival.
“I have been consistently blown away by the progress happening here,” he says. “Not only with manufacturers, but the broader economy — tourism, what’s happening on the Buffalo Niagara Medical campus — and I think it’s one of the most amazing times to be here.”
The efforts are geared at creating long-term impact, and Ulbrich thinks the progress is sustainable.
“The younger generation, I believe, is the one that is the most excited with what is going on in Buffalo,” he says. “You’re seeing young people in their 20s and 30s returning from New York, San Francisco and Boston. People are coming for the opportunity, and it’s a great place to raise a family.”