For more than a decade, Afshan Khan was a hard working manufacturing entrepreneur in Washington County, employing some 200 people and a differentiation strategy focused on building and retaining domestic manufacturing capabilities. Doing so allowed Focal Point Products, a global developer of polyurethane millwork building materials for home and commercial construction, to respond quickly to demand for rapid turnaround on immediate project needs for customers of all sizes nationwide.
Now Khan is the Innovation Adoption Program (IAP) Manager at Innovation Works, part of the Commonwealth's Ben Franklin Technology Partners network catalyzing technology development in southwestern Pennsylvania. The IAP connects established manufacturing companies with tech experts at Centers of Excellence throughout the region. When Khan was CEO of Focal Point Products, her company was the recipient of two IAP grants.
The first, in 2006, aided in completing the company's development of manufacturing tools for high-production manufacturing runs for a new design. The next year, another IAP grant helped Focal Point streamline the flow of its products through the manufacturing floor using barcode scanning and workstations. Today, companies that have achieved substantial success since the grant give back some or all of the funding so that it can be cycled back to support other companies in the region.
We sat down with Khan in her IAP office to talk about the growth and success of the IAP program”
How are the Centers of Excellence chosen?
Centers of Excellence come from a variety of sources, including organizations like Catalyst Connection, NCDMM (National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining), top universities and colleges, and other non-profit organizations that have expertise that can provide benefit and support to the private sector. These Centers of Excellence are focused on research, development, marketing strategies and other needs of the private sector to launch new products. It's designed to allow experts in the field to come together with small companies to solve a specific problem but not be a huge burden of cost through a long-term consulting project or an increased burden on the payroll of full-time research employees.
What sorts of small businesses seek out the IAP for assistance?
Typically the IAP works with small to medium-sized manufacturing companies in southwestern Pennsylvania, in the areas of industrial manufacturing, that have been in business for at least three years or more, with less than 250 workers in the area. These are companies that do produce physical products, so it excludes software companies; there are other IAP programs for earlier stages.
How successful is this region as a hub for manufacturing?
The southwestern Pennsylvania region has a great history in manufacturing, and has been able to build key skills and establish itself as a leader in industrial manufacturing, energy, healthcare and other advanced technology manufacturing. The area has many core strengths in its education base, strategic location, work ethic and ability to reinvent itself. That's why it's a good hub for manufacturing.
For high-tech manufacturing as well?
The high-tech demands of industries such as energy and healthcare in the region, along with the great intellectual capacity of the area’s strong universities, colleges and schools has consistently generated advancements in technology that serve these and other industries. The brainpower of Carnegie Mellon University, Pitt, and Penn State is amazing, just to name a few. AlphaLab Gear, TechShop and other manufacturing initiatives are at the forefront in this region.
How well does the state encourage manufacturing?
Pennsylvania is pushing many initiatives to further manufacturing, with the newest commitment being the Innovate in PA tax credits, as well as support for BFTDA efforts in robotics applications, support for AlphaLab Gear and other programs specifically for revitalizing manufacturing in Pennsylvania.
What are the trends among manufacturing companies; what new technologies are they most often seeking?
Companies are searching for technology transformations that can help them boost productivity and improve competitiveness. Additive 3D manufacturing is being explored in a variety of industries and manufacturing processes, especially those related to lower volume and custom products. Advanced CAD and CNC capabilities are increasing, as well as the use of cloud computing and other internet tools to manage inventory and track output.
What processes are they most often looking to improve?
Design processes are improved with CAD and CND capabilities, and low-volume and custom output are significantly cost-effective using additive manufacturing techniques. Inventory management, pricing, and availability are enhanced using cloud computing.
Is there a company that perhaps exemplifies the effect of IAP?
All Water Systems in Turtle Creek specializes in water treatment systems for industrial and commercial applications. They wanted to scale up the design of their four-inch membrane filtration system to become an eight-inch membrane filtration system and in the process they wanted to enhance their training support system and strengthen their commercial activities around their new system. They're expecting to be able to explore applications for new industries, to improve sales, increase employees and project a stronger brand and image through refinement of their approach to the market.
What does a current company going through the process hope to achieve?
Velocity Equipment Solutions in New Castle is a recent recipient of an IAP grant, and they have recently launched the development and commercialization of two initiatives, one with an innovative new adaption for an electric blow mold machine to produce HDPE containers for the dairy market, and a revolutionary new cooling technology to accelerate cooling cycle time in the blown bottle shape. They are working with Catalyst Connection using the Innovation Works' IAP funding to complete development and testing, secure intellectual property, develop beta prototypes, establish certification and launch in the market. They had a well-defined project. They knew what they needed, and they are closely monitoring each phase to keep it on track.
What have you discovered while running the IAP program?
The IAP program, like other resources the state has to offer, are well-kept secrets that companies could benefit from if they knew more about. Programs like the IAP are very easy for companies to apply for and are very generous in their amount of funding and in their repayment terms.
What's the future for the IAP?
The future looks bright as manufacturing resurges in the area, and with renewed interest in manufacturing and technology innovation in the U.S., programs such as the IAP can be a significant source of support, and bring key stakeholders together.