New Program Fuels U.S. Manufacturing Competitiveness

It helps small to mid-sized manufacturers expand engineering capabilities.

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Small to mid-sized manufacturers typically lack engineering resources to take innovative new ideas to the next level. But an exciting new program looks to solve the problem, and also provide an exciting new way for manufacturers to recruit young engineering talent. 

The Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center (IMEC) and Northern Illinois University (NIU) are joining forces on a new program called “Partnerships to Fuel US Manufacturing Competitiveness.” 

The program allows manufacturers to collaborate with NIU’s engineering school on a project. 

According to Ray Ziganto, manufacturing director and program liaison, this is a new approach for all parties involved. Ray ZigantoRay Ziganto

“Instead of the engineering college coming up with a professor or student-inspired project, the challenge comes from the manufacturing industry,” Ziganto said. 

For a nominal fee, a manufacturer can sponsor a project, and then engage with a team of engineers from the university. The manufacturer can be as hands-on with the project as they’d like Ziganto works as a liaison who provides oversight on the project.

“It’s a great opportunity for manufacturers who wish they had the resources to pull off a special project,” Ziganto said. “Now they can.”

Creating Scalable Connections Between Universities, MEPs and Manufacturers

The program is the result of a government grant from NIST, the parent organization of Manufacturing Extension Programs like IMEC and APLU, the Association of Public & Land Grant Universities, which includes NIU.

The goal of the grant is to develop scalable ways to foster connections between MEPs, colleges and manufacturers, something beyond internships or something contained within the engineering program. “You give the engineering students something to work on, but the output is owned by the company that sponsors it,” Ziganto explains. 

An example of a program participant would be a contract manufacturer who has an idea for a proprietary product line. They can build the product, but they might lack the electrical engineering expertise to make the part integrate with the Internet of Things (IoT). 

NIU can provide engineering resources in multiple disciplines. This widens the breadth of the projects that the program can accept, and it can lead to some exciting cross-functional opportunities for the young engineers. 

How the Project Works

To get started, a manufacturer needs to reach out to IMEC or NIU directly. Working with Ziganto, they can determine the scope of the project, including the steps required to ensure the project proceeds smoothly.  

Once the project is clearly defined, an engineering team is assembled by NIU and assigned to the project. The group provides weekly updates to the manufacturer. The amount of time and involvement required on the part of the manufacturer is flexible.  

“You can attend the hour-long meetings once a week, but if you can’t, my job is to ensure things are proceeding smoothly,” Ziganto said. 

The program requires a fee of $10,000 to participate, but Ziganto believes that’s a small price to pay for the potential benefits, including:

  • The output is yours. All the labor and intellectual property comes from the engineering school, but the manufacturer retains full ownership of the final product. 
  • The upfront fee is far more cost-effective than hiring an engineer. Providing you can find one, hiring an engineer can be an expensive proposition, and a big gamble if a lone engineer doesn’t have all the expertise required.
  • The engineering school has extensive resources. Think of it as not just an internship for one engineer, but for all the engineers the project requires. 
  • The recruiting possibilities occur organically. Ziganto believes this is a far easier way to recruit young engineers. If the project proves successful, it might be a natural progression to hire key engineers who worked on its implementation when they graduate. 

Open to All Manufacturers Across Illinois

While the program is ideally suited for small to mid-sized companies, any manufacturer can participate. “We can work with anyone from start-ups, with low or no revenue, to big companies,” Ziganto said. 

But regardless of your company size, the program solves a universal problem. “Everyone is working to get by with less, and struggling with workforce issues,” Ziganto said. 

The program makes good business sense, Ziganto believes, “especially when you consider the rate of change, and the fact that there are more opportunities and challenges than there are resources.”  

If the output from all parties involved is as innovative as the program that brought them together, this will be a huge win for the manufacturing industry. 

To learn more about the program, contact Ray Ziganto at rziganto@NIU.edu.

This profile is a part of an ongoing series to expand awareness of the manufacturing industry from Winbound, a manufacturing marketing agency. If your company would like to be featured in a profile, contact Greg Mischio

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