Manufacturers in the Greater Lehigh Valley demonstrate strong growth, annually adding billions to the region’s gross domestic product and helping to create jobs well beyond the industry.
Many, too, are expanding, looking to enlarge their workforce and improve efficiencies.
Along the way – for the past 30 years and often helping behind the scenes – has been a small but powerful force known as the Manufacturers Resource Center, based in Hanover Township, Lehigh County. The taxpayer-funded nonprofit has connected manufacturers to training opportunities, professional development programs and knowledge-sharing events and helped them navigate the many challenges facing the industry over the years.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of MRC, and it’s well-positioned to continue that mission – including taking on issues such as the skills gap, worker shortage and trade wars and creating greater efficiencies.
“They are a very good partner to work with, very flexible, and they’ve been a real asset for us,” said Steve Weise, executive vice president of manufacturing and supply chain for Freshpet in Hanover Township, Northampton County, who said MRC helped it to improve production and profit margins.
“They are genuinely interested in making manufacturing successful,” added Bill Hindle, president of Hindle Power in Williams Township, a longtime user of MRC services.
One of the biggest issues for MRC is the need to spread awareness of manufacturing careers that exist in the region and get this information to youth.
To that end, MRC president and CEO Jack Pfunder has made the “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?” video contest a major focus of his goals for the organization the past five years.
The contest offers middle school students tours of manufacturing plants, where the students create videos that show what the jobs are like.
With MRC’s direction and guidance, along with the support of several local organizations and companies, the contest has continued growing and reaching more young people across MRC’s five-county service area and beyond.
FILLING THE VOID
Employers in the industry are concerned there will not be enough skilled workers to fill the many jobs needed in the industry as baby boomers retire and technology reduces the amount of people needed to do some jobs.
It’s become a top priority for MRC.
“Manufacturers are very worried,” Pfunder said. “We need to fill that void.”
MORE WITH LESS
The other main issue MRC focuses on is Industry 4.0, which Pfunder says is the direction for manufacturing’s future. Industry 4.0 refers to the efficiency advancements in automation within the industry.
“People can do more with less people,” Pfunder said. “Developed countries now are having these efficiencies that put them at an advantage.
“Now the developed countries are taking the next step. The U.S. is taking the lead on this.”
HIRING A TECH MANAGER
Manufacturers need an organization such as MRC to help them understand Industry 4.0, Pfunder said.
To meet this demand, MRC will hire a part-time manager of technology so companies can learn how to apply these technologies.
Industry 4.0 also relates to lean manufacturing, and MRC has focused on this aspect, as well, by showing companies how to achieve lean production levels, which involves the elimination of waste.
WHAT MANUFACTURERS NEED
MRC focuses on small to mid-sized companies and provides training on new food-safety regulations, offers a maintenance certification program and also concentrates on areas on process improvement, workforce development, supervisor boot camps and the Manufacturing Leadership Institute.
“It’s listening to what the manufacturers need,” Pfunder said.
Aside from certification and funding opportunities, MRC also provides access to coaching, marketing and business assistance and mentorship.
MRC receives funding from a program through the U.S. Department of Commerce and the state Department of Community & Economic Development, among other sources.
The organization is a wholly owned subsidiary of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, where it got its start in an office on the university’s Goodman Campus before moving to Marcon Boulevard, a corporate office building near Lehigh Valley International Airport.
“We are not Lehigh employees but we use their resources and benefits,” Pfunder said.
The university sponsored MRC when it began in 1988. Microbiologist and biochemist Edith Ritter, a business, economic development and community advocate, served as its executive director prior to Pfunder taking over in 2005.
Today, a board of 23 people oversees the MRC.
“Most manufacturers are doing well,” said Pfunder, who plans to retire next year.
However, he described recent reports of U.S. trade wars with other nations as a major issue facing manufacturers.
“No one knows where it’s going to go,” Pfunder said. “That’s a variable we weren’t expecting.”
For manufacturers to be successful, they have to eliminate variables, which are the unknowns, Pfunder said.
“This is all part of the equation. As a CEO, you have to minimize your variables,” he said.
MRC is looking at how to better connect manufacturers to others in the field so they can share ideas and find resources to solve problems.
MRC also is starting its Fundamentals of Manufacturing course next month.
The pilot program, conducted at Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville and MRC’s mobile training center, aims to get a new group of people interested in entering the manufacturing field with a free course.
Pfunder sees it as another way to address the skills gap and help reduce the manufacturing worker shortage.
IMPORTANCE OF CULTURE
Pfunder repeatedly hears from companies that they need people who are trainable, and that many manufacturers will train people in order to hire them.
“MRC is constantly changing,” he said. “We do not want to compete with existing consultants. I think the consortium kind of training/education is very important. We will continue that.
“We are doing everything we can to help companies enhance their culture. A lot of our lean courses are built around culture. … Open the lines of communication, all throughout the organization.”
Freshpet, a pet food manufacturer, received help in understanding lean manufacturing when MRC worked with it on a couple of projects with internal teams, Weise said.
One project improved the company’s profit margins by five points on a product line and another improved the company’s output on the production line by about 20 percent, he said.
Freshpet also sent several employees to MRC for training, and other times MRC brought the training to the company, Weise said.
They were particularly helpful with problem solving, he said.
TOOLS TO SUCCEED
Hindle said he moved Hindle Power, a battery charger product manufacturer, from New Jersey to Pennsylvania in 2000 and connected with MRC that same year.
“MRC has been fantastic,” he said. “All of our lean training came from them, and we continue to learn from them.”
Hindle Power has participated in all kinds of MRC programs which have helped the company become successful, Hindle said. They include the Manufacturing Leadership Institute, which many Hindle Power employees have attended, and the annual video contest, which the company has participated in for several years.
“It was the MRC who gave us the tools to run a proper business so that we could run a successful business,” Hindle said.