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April 25, 2022

Smaller CT manufacturers launch new product development, employee training centers

HBJ PHOTO | SKYLER FRAZER New England Airfoil Products Office Manager Kathy Olszewski shows off parts of The George Einstein Learning Center, the company’s new hub for onboarding and training employees.

Connecticut’s largest manufacturers, including Stanley Black & Decker and Pratt & Whitney, in recent years have opened multimillion-dollar training and product development centers that aim to recruit and/or upskill workers and help create a new line of advanced technology products that can compete in the global marketplace.

Facing pressure to innovate and recruit their own workers, some smaller manufacturers are increasingly following suit.

Last month, Farmington-based aerospace manufacturer New England Airfoil Products debuted its “George Einstein Learning Center” in a former conference room that now serves as a hub to train and onboard new employees.

The company also recently completed the build-out of a 10,000-square-foot product introduction center, which will be used to develop and test new products and parts.

A few years ago, manufacturer OKAY Industries invested $1.5 million to to build research and development design spaces — called NextTech Labs — at sites in New Britain and Berlin.

The company designs and manufactures metal and plastic parts used by medical-device makers, so the need to constantly develop new products for partners is key, said OKAY Industries President and CEO Jason Howey.

“Our customers are looking for partners to bring new products to market, and our core competency in that area is to help them with design for manufacturability of these components that go in their devices,” Howey said.

OKAY Industries, which has more than 300 Connecticut employees, now has three new product introduction centers in the state: two in Berlin, focused on laser processing and Swiss machining; and one in New Britain with a mixed focus on five-axis milling, metal 3D printing, metal forming and tube forming.

“The people who work in the labs love it,” Howey said.

OKAY Industries President and CEO Jason Howey.

Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology President and CEO Ron Angelo said large-scale original equipment manufacturers have created new product introduction and employee training centers for years, but he’s seen an increase in small- to mid-size companies doing the same.

“[Manufacturers] are looking at this in a much more forward-looking way, to remain competitive and to look at ways to diversify their business,” Angelo said.

‘Rubber hits the road’

Clive Cunliffe is the president of Pietro Rosa - North America, the Italian manufacturer of compressor airfoils for gas turbines and complex structural components that purchased New England Airfoil Products (NEAP) in 2016. He said NEAP’s new product introduction center in Farmington serves as a “missing link” in the parent company’s portfolio of manufacturers that do everything from research and development of a product to supply chain management.

Clive Cunliffe

Cunliffe said the Farmington research center allows Pietro Rosa to be less dependent on its European locations for product development.

“Pietro Rosa now has the full life cycle of a product [in Farmington],” Cunliffe said.

When the company purchased NEAP in 2016 the facility had been “underinvested” for years and there were only 17 local employees, he said. Today, the modernized plant employs more than 100 full-time workers.

At the time of the sale, the Department of Economic and Community Development pledged to provide Pietro Rosa a $3 million low-interest loan in exchange for the company investing more than $10 million in the Farmington operations.

NEAP’s new product innovation center is off limits to visitors because of the company’s defense industry work. It’s located in one of the company’s 10,000-square-foot warehouses that was completely gutted and outfitted with new equipment and space for product development.

The space was built out in 2021 and became fully operational earlier this year. It has helped NEAP recruit engineers to its development team, Cunliffe said.

“The thing we didn’t want to become was a maker of only legacy products,” he said.

CCAT’s Angelo said such research centers are more commonly found at larger corporations.

For example, in 2019 New Britain toolmaker Stanley Black & Decker opened its 23,000-square-foot Manufactory 4.0 facility in downtown Hartford, which showcases advanced manufacturing technologies — such as modular robotic automation cells, mobile robots and collaborative robots — and how they’ll be implemented into facilities around the world.

In 2017, jet-engine maker Pratt & Whitney, now owned by Raytheon Technologies, debuted a $60 million refurbished research center in East Hartford that focuses on making advances and new discoveries in additive technology.

CCAT serves as a partner to companies that can’t build their own research centers, Angelo said.

CCAT is an applied technology demonstration and training center that provides education and resources to companies in the manufacturing and engineering fields.

“CCAT is really where the rubber hits the road,” Angelo said. “It’s where industry and technology advancement intersect.”

The organization operates an Advanced Composites Technology Center at Goodwin University as part of a public-private partnership with the school, state and Pratt & Whitney.

The space offers high-tech equipment and programming for students and small manufacturers to get hands-on training and innovate how they produce new products.

“So companies come to us when they’ve got a challenge. It could be with a redesign of a product, or it could be something new they’re developing,” Angelo said.

In addition to developing new products, CCAT’s facilities can help companies find better, more efficient ways to create their legacy products, he said.

Employee training

The George Einstein Center was named after NEAP’s founder, who was the nephew of Albert Einstein. The center was converted from the company’s largest conference room to a meeting space where employees can bring their computers and learn in a collaborative environment. A large television and projector sit at one end of the room to allow for presentations.

Cunliffe said having an in-house training space is important for companies that want to retain employees and strengthen their skill base. It’s key for employers to “help people on their journey as professionals” if they want to keep them around long term, he said.

“The marketplace is full of competition now,” Cunliffe said.

Howey said OKAY Industries also does internal employee training and programming, and partners with local educational institutions to recruit new people. For example, it works with Central Connecticut State University’s manufacturing and engineering departments to learn, and teach, the latest advancements in the field.

“In terms of driving innovation, we do a lot of internal R&D to develop and improve processes, but it’s also used to teach others. It’s a very effective model,” Howey said.

CCAT’s partnership with Goodwin also highlights the importance of getting young people involved in the manufacturing and engineering industries. Education about advancing technology and workforce training remain CCAT’s focus areas, Angelo said.

CCAT President and CEO Ron Angelo.

“There’s tons of open jobs, but the reality is that every company, large and small, has very individual specific needs,” Angelo said. “So the necessity for them to have their own in-house training programs, and even in-house training centers, to be able to meet their needs is more critical than ever.”

Product innovation centers and employee educational spaces also help change the stigma around manufacturing jobs, and showcase that many manufacturing facilities use state-of-the-art technology and are constantly growing based on new advancements, executives said.

“It’s about getting people excited about manufacturing,” Cunliffe said.

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