Manufacturers Can Cross Digital Bridge Through Build Back Better Regional Challenge Initiative 

News | Petra Mitchell| January 9, 2023

Just as American iron and steel and manufacturing emerged from the Greater Pittsburgh region in the Industrial Revolution, today a new revolution of advanced manufacturing (AM) technologies grows from southwestern Pennsylvania’s innovations in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), cybersecurity, and other leading-edge digital technologies. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report titled “Making it in America: Revitalizing U.S. Manufacturing” (November 2017), these “Industry 4.0” manufacturing technologies have the potential to boost our Made-in-America competitive advantage.

However, according to the same study, digital technology adoption by small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) lags that of large firms because capital resources for factory modernization are insufficient, as is the number of skilled workers. This dynamic could limit manufacturing expansion, productivity, agility, and hiring.

Catalyst Connection is helping to brighten the future of our region’s SMEs in the manufacturing sector as part of the Southwestern Pennsylvania New Economy Collaborative which recently received a federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge Grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Catalyst Connection will use some of those funds to help SMEs adopt AM and digital technologies, including robotics and autonomous systems. The project will support factory modernization, bring the R&D resources of Greater Pittsburgh’s anchor institutions to those companies, strengthen supply chains, and fill many of the region’s brownfields with thriving enterprises.

SMEs in manufacturing are a key component of southwestern Pennsylvania’s economy, with more than 2,700 companies employing 86,000 people (7.8% of the total workforce) and contributing $14.6 billion annually in GDP.

Initial activities are underway and include outreach and recruitment of firms that have a forward-focused culture where leaders understand the productivity and market expansion benefits of digital technologies for product design, development, commercialization, and production, as well as for worker-technology interfaces, and customer service and delivery systems.

Companies’ activities will be assessed for the most common robotics applications such as machine tending, robotic welding, packaging, automated production lines, and material handling.  Some SMEs may have opportunities to use robotics and automation to improve tasks that are  repetitive or undesirable otherwise by, for examples, automating manual inspection processes using machine vision technology and improving materials movement using autonomous mobile robots.

We will also help companies consider using digital technologies that cover a wide range of applications from front office operations to production.  Those improvements can include digitizing paper-driven processes, capturing data for process monitoring, and using artificial intelligence or machine learning to optimize processes or to build predictive models that can reduce or eliminate equipment downtime.  The common element in all these improvements is  continually providing the right data to the right people at the right time.

Although additive manufacturing / 3D Printing has been around for more than 30 years, it remains an emerging  technology among SMEs in the manufacturing sector because adoption has been prohibitively expensive in the short term despite the technologies’ abilities to reduce costs, increase capabilities, and improve productivity far beyond the limits of traditional manufacturing processes.

Finally, cybersecurity will be a key focus of the Initiative. According to an IBM study of cyber attacks, manufacturing is the second-most targeted industry (up from eighth in 2019), trailing only finance & insurance. The keys to combatting this threat are awareness and applying that knowledge to implementation of best practices. In the defense sector, contractors and sub-contractors are required to comply with U.S. Department of Defense Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification, so there is precedent for those kinds of stipulations.  

As companies implement advanced technologies, Catalyst Connection will provide training for workers so they can operate and maintain the most modern equipment. We will also facilitate access to capital through grants and loans. 

Industry 4.0 manufacturing technologies are primed to significantly increase the competitive advantages of SMEs in southwestern Pennsylvania and the Made in America products they manufacture.  Catalyst Connection is proud to be supporting our region’s manufacturers through the Build Back Better Regional Challenge to help them compete globally.

If your company, or that of someone you know, can benefit from our expertise, and from  relationships in the public and private sectors that we have developed over the past 35 years, our team of talented professionals is ready to help.