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Tech is changing Connecticut manufacturing. Can businesses keep up?

Students who major in electrical engineering, robotics engineering and computer science stand near a self-driving robot car in the robotics lab at the University of Hartford.
Yehyun Kim
CT Mirror
Students who major in electrical engineering, robotics engineering and computer science stand near a self-driving robot car in the robotics lab at the University of Hartford.

Manufacturing is merging with modern technology. Artificial intelligence, cloud computing, sensors and robotics will soon become ubiquitous on many factory floors.

But within Connecticut’s vaunted advanced manufacturing sector — which for decades has churned out jet engines, precision aircraft components, medical devices and semiconductor parts — adjusting to this “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is overextending small- and medium-sized businesses. It’s also creating growing needs for high-tech training and postsecondary certifications and degree programs at colleges and universities around the state.

Without a coordinated approach between business and higher education, state and industry leaders say, Connecticut’s advanced manufacturing sector could lose out to competitors.

“The supply chain will not be teed up to meet the demands of this intense defense manufacturing in the state,” Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, who co-chairs the General Assembly’s Commerce Committee, said. “And if we’ve got a pause in keeping that engine fueled, things are moving so fast, everybody around us is going to eat our lunch.”

These new advancements in manufacturing technology come as pockets of industrial production are reappearing in the United States after the decades-long trend of corporate outsourcing to lower-cost countries. Recent developments, like pandemic-induced supply chain interruptions and new federal subsidies for high-tech manufacturing, have provided incentives for companies to “reshore” their engineering and factory operations back to the Americas.

That, in turn, has driven urgent demand in several regions of the country for new, more productive industrial technologies — and the workforce that can design, build and maintain it.

“What you’re seeing is a big push for advanced manufacturing resiliency in the U.S., almost a reindustrialization,” said Alexander Kersten, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

As a result, Connecticut, with its reputation as an advanced-manufacturing juggernaut, has been facing a lot of fresh competition.

Two years ago, Connecticut lawmakers passed legislation establishing a working group tasked with helping manufacturers transition to “Industry 4.0,” as it’s known. In late 2022 the group published a report that lists publicly funded programs available to companies across the state — including technology research, training and deployment assistance — and describes how to access them. The providers include universities, industry groups and consultancies like Connstep and Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology.

“Think about it like 9-1-1 for manufacturing,” said Hisham Alnajjar, dean of the College of Engineering, Technology, and Architecture at the University of Hartford, who served as a member of the Commerce Committee’s Manufacturing Technology Working Group.

Many smaller companies might want to automate their operations, but they don’t have capital to invest, and they don’t understand the technology enough to know where to start, Alnajjar said.

“If they want to move, and when they move, we need to have the support for them,” he said.

At Central Connecticut State University, for example, companies can use laboratory space, try out applications like augmented reality or work with students and faculty to explore new technologies and design production processes using the university’s expertise and equipment. University President Zulma Toro, an engineer by training, said that could take the form of a student apprenticeship, supervised by a professor, or an applied research initiative led by a faculty member.

“As we transition and more technology becomes available, and more knowledge, we’re leaving behind more and more small and medium companies,” Toro said. “I see us as that facilitator, to help them get to where they need in terms of readiness.”

Minding the gaps

Apart from research, Connecticut manufacturers need colleges and universities to provide people — skilled graduates who will make up the industry’s future workforce. By 2030, the state labor department projects occupations in industrial, mechanical and electronics engineering will rise by more than 20%.

The industry’s need for four-year college graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields parallels its need for technicians with two-year degrees or shorter-term certifications in fields like mechatronics, who can build and maintain advanced machinery, said Andy Voelker, a partner with McKinsey & Co. in Boston.

“Aerospace and defense leaders and executives traditionally have their highly skilled, tradecraft, hourly employee base, which is running the manufacturing part of the operation. The other half is traditionally this set of engineers, technologists, scientists, what they would bucket into their 'professional' category of talent,” Voelker said. “Both are equally important.”

Connecticut’s colleges and universities — and the technical high school programs that feed them — have to do both well.

“That requires a real investment and commitment by the system to create aspirational curriculum that is directed towards 10 years from now — not just meeting current needs, but looking ahead,” said Katherine Saint, president of Bridgeport manufacturing company Schwerdtle Technologies.

In its report, the Manufacturing Technology Working Group called on the state to develop “critical educational pathways” that will ensure industry workers have the right skills. “We need to recognize that the gaps in preparation of all participants in the workforce will deter successful adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies,” the report stated.

Already this year, the legislature is weighing several bills aimed at addressing workforce needs in the rapidly changing manufacturing sector. One calls on the Department of Economic and Community Development to research and report on the issue, publishing its findings by early next year. Another directs the department to boost promotion and recruitment of young people into the field through advertising, job fairs and career support.

On-campus collabs

Several collaborative programs are already underway on college and corporate campuses around the state.

The University of Hartford’s College of Engineering, Technology, and Architecture has advisory boards of industry leaders that meet several times a year with faculty. They evaluate the curriculum and offer suggestions for which technologies or software to add or remove, based on what they’re using in their operations.

The private university was able to take advantage of that insight in designing and building its new 60,000-square-foot academic facility, Hursey Center, which includes laboratories for everything from robotics to 3D printing, mechatronics and cybersecurity. Business partners helped the university select equipment and design the labs.

“We really stopped the whole thing and redesigned everything” to focus on future needs of industry, Alnajjar said. “There is a train coming here called Industry 4.0. We need to make sure we are on the train.”

Jet-engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney established a scholarship program for engineering students at the University of Connecticut School of Engineering, which launched last year. The selected students also work for Pratt in the summer as interns and complete a design project their senior year for the company.

Cara Redding, a Pratt design engineer who provides mentorship to the students in the program, marveled at how much the younger generation seems to intuitively understand about the latest technology. “They are so much smarter, and so much more aware than I was at their age,” she said.

A robot made by a South Korean company called Robotics shows push ups. The robot is used to teach basic concepts of robotics and programming to freshman and sophomore robotics students at the University of Hartford.
CT Mirror
A robot made by a South Korean company called Robotics shows push ups. The robot is used to teach basic concepts of robotics and programming to freshman and sophomore robotics students at the University of Hartford.

Smaller businesses can seek funding to support internships from the state's Manufacturing Innovation Fund. Other collaborations include the state’s “Tech Talent Accelerator” program, funded by the New England Board of Higher Education and the Business-Higher Education Forum. One of those grants will allow Mitchell College to create accelerated cybersecurity training for the advanced manufacturing and defense sector. (UConn also now offers a short-term certificate program in cybersecurity.)

Goodwin University in East Hartford offers certificate programs in mechatronics and robotics and automation. It also operates a mobile lab — a 44-foot trailer that’s literally a classroom on wheels — for companies that want their employees to learn additional skills without having to send them off site.

And at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, the Regional Center for Next Generation Manufacturing — funded by the National Science Foundation — is developing curriculum for people entering the field and training instructors in teaching advanced technologies.

The programs are gaining traction, but Mark Burzynski, who does recruiting and talent development for Bristol-based manufacturer The Arthur G. Russell Co., says he’s still concerned about the industry’s workforce pipeline.

AGR builds high-volume production assembly systems that use automation, smart sensors and other very new technologies. The company struggles to find people with the skills to build and maintain those systems, and its customers and competitors face the same challenges. Burzynski has urged state leaders to expand training and education, pushing specifically for a program created by Toyota known as FAME, an abbreviation for Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education.

But he also has a longer-term solution in mind.

On a mezzanine floor at AGR’s plant, the company has set aside space for a group of high school students to design and build robots, which they enter each year in an international competition known as FIRST Robotics. The company provides used equipment and computers, and employees offer help and feedback each afternoon when the kids show up after school.

“It’s a long-term strategy, but it has come full-circle,” Burzynski said. One of the team’s founding members now works as a design engineer at AGR.

This story was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship. The Fellowship supports reporting on career and technical education. It is administered by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars and funded by the ECMC Foundation.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.