In the mid 1980s, MRC Bearings of Chautauqua County, N.Y., was losing experienced employees. Its production levels and overall integrity were at stake as a generation of workers began retiring, leaving difficult-to-fill holes in its skilled labor workforce.
The company — now SKF Aeroengine North America — hired Adrien Adelman to develop training programs at MRC through a grant. Adelman, a University at Buffalo alumnus, called Colin Drury, PhD, UB professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering, for help. Little did Drury foresee that providing aid to MRC’s Jamestown and Falconer facilities would lead to creation of a center that strengthens the enterprise performance of companies and nurtures the skill sets of business professionals.
Since then, we have been improving the local economy by connecting companies with resources of the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Officially launched in 1987 in a storage room in Bell Hall on the North Campus as The Center for Industrial Effectiveness, we are now housed at the Baird Research Park and serves businesses of all types and sizes through technical engineering, consulting and training.
“As a public university and a public school of engineering, there are some expectations in the community,” said Robert Barnes, PhD, who retired as UB SEAS chief of staff in 2013. “One of our strongest ways of satisfying that is with the work that TCIE does.”
An average of 80 companies call on us for assistance each year. Most are located within the Buffalo-Niagara region, though services have also reached across New York and beyond state borders. Professional development programs touch an average 1,000 individuals annually.
“A major goal of TCIE was, and still is, to help companies that are already here prosper,” said Drury, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus. “This has created or retained thousands of jobs and kept the region competitive.”
At aerospace bearings manufacturer MRC, Adelman explained that non-structured training was driving a high scrap rate and rework costs.
Drury and a team from UB tackled a variety of manufacturing problems at MRC over a few years, beginning in 1985. The team included the late John Zahorjan, a Fisher-Price vice president who became a UB Engineering faculty member; Don Arsem, associate professor of management science and systems in the School of Management before his retirement; and several graduate students, including Brian Kleiner, now a professor of industrial and systems engineering at Virginia Tech. They provided guidance in quality and process control. They also delivered programs to about 150 MRC employees.
Stories of their success traveled to the Western New York Economic Development Corp. (WNYEDC), the pre-cursor of Empire State Development. The idea to replicate the consultative work aligned with the organization’s focus on keeping companies in town.
WNYEDC provided New York State startup funds to a new collaboration between UB’s schools of engineering and management. Monies were used for two-day assessments of Western New York companies facing hardship to determine how they might best be improved.
“Dunlop and Motorola were planning to leave. We were the instrument that showed them they could do things here,” Drury said. “WNYEDC came in and said, ‘We can help you’.”
During our first 10 years, we created or saved more than 5,000 jobs in more than 500 Western New York firms. We eventually became sole property of UB SEAS and an advisory board composed of business and economic development leaders helped identify ways to strengthen regional development.
Small companies received greater access to our services when former dean of UB SEAS George Lee and his counterparts at Binghamton and Stony Brook universities successfully petitioned Albany lawmakers to provide outreach funds to the State University of New York’s (SUNY) three engineering schools. The result was the Strategic Partnership for Industrial Resurgence (SPIR) grant, which subsidizes technically advanced engineering projects for New York State companies. We have been SPIR’s regional administrator since 1994.
“TCIE has always done a good job of visiting companies, trying to understand what kinds of things are needed in the community and doing their best to solve those problems,” Barnes said. “But with the added resources, they were also able to do some cost-sharing, which made their services even more attractive.”
Mark Karwan, PhD, who oversaw our center as UB SEAS dean from 1994 to 2006, pointed to a 1990s report showing an average 40-employee count among Western New York’s 1,400 technology-intensive companies. For these small companies, he said, SPIR and TCIE are “able to fill the gap in many cases, in providing expertise on a project-by-project basis without the need to hire expensive, full-time employees.”
SPIR empowers companies to introduce new technologies, address product development and testing challenges and enhance continuous improvement programs. Those who complete the work — UB SEAS faculty and student assistants — similarly experience benefits.
“TCIE facilitates real-world experiences for graduate students to use their classroom- and lab-developed expertise,” said Karwan, now the UB Praxair Professor in Operations Research and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor. “Faculty members have also garnered case study experiences to bring to the classroom.”
We became a pillar organization of the UB Business Alliance formed in 1998, which served as UB’s primary center for industrial outreach and economic development. The alliance also included the Office of Technology Transfer Services, the Health Care Industries Association and the UB Technology Incubator. The alliance then transitioned into the Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (STOR) three years later, and we continued our affiliation with UB SEAS.
In the early 2000s, we made a concerted effort to remain viable by marketing ourselves beyond the traditional manufacturing core. Our customer base expanded to include health care organizations, government and educational institutions, non-profits and private companies in various industries.
Consultation and professional training programs in quality standards and process improvement methodologies, such as Lean and Six Sigma, were added to the lineup. By the 2004-05 school year, UB SEAS students were provided an opportunity to master the Six Sigma problem-solving approach through a certification program placing them in Western New York companies to tackle business-specific issues.
We were honored six times by the National Association of Management and Technical Assistance Centers and its descendent, the University Economic Development Association, for projects resulting in significant gains. We received recognition for work completed at Erie County, Saint Vincent Health Center in Erie, Pa., the former Delphi Thermal Lockport facility, Quebecor, Bethlehem Steel and OhmCraft.
During the second decade of the 21 Century, our service branched out through a variety of means:
“Company testimonials have made it clear that TCIE has helped them become and remain competitive in local and global markets, often at a fraction of the cost they would have assumed had they gone to large, national consulting firms,” Karwan said. “Bottom line -– they get good results.”