In the community of New Kensington, situated about seventeen miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh, signs of economic downturn are evident. Vacant storefronts, empty warehouses, and its once bustling Fifth Avenue are what remain since the community’s heyday when major manufacturing corporations called New Kensington home.
Rapid advances in technology have affected almost every business and industry, including manufacturing. The propulsion of things such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and data analysis is fueling the proverbial flame of what some believe will be the next industrial revolution. Known by manufacturing experts as “Industry 4.0,” this shift represents the digital transformation of manufacturing.
For Kevin Snider, chancellor of the nearby Penn State New Kensington campus, and local officials, New Kensington’s transformation is going to require not only community-driven revitalization efforts, but also a retraining of the area’s workforce to meet the modern needs of the workplace. Because of the University’s focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, Penn State is uniquely positioned to lead this effort.
Penn State New Kensington, located 17 miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh
A Collaborative Effort
Backed by the resources of Invent Penn State’s statewide network of innovation hubs, Penn State New Kensington is partnering with Westmoreland County and the City of New Kensington to revive the community through research, education, and entrepreneurship.
“The question becomes, ‘how do you go about taking a Rust Belt area and preparing it for the digital age?’ Cities are not prepared to head into this next phase of the industrial revolution because of the skills required to adapt to processes that are now becoming automated by computers.”
Faculty at Penn State New Kensington have been at the forefront of an effort to equip both students and members of the local workforce with the skills required to adapt to the digital age of manufacturing.
Joe Cuiffi, Penn State alumnus, assistant teaching professor, and program coordinator of New Kensington’s four-year electro-mechanical engineering technology (EMET) program, is developing an educational toolkit based upon machinery and software that imitate a smart manufacturing system. The learning exercises, which will be delivered via a cloud-based platform, will teach students about smart manufacturing processes and how they can be used in business optimization.
“We will be developing a curriculum around this machinery that teaches people how to think about smart manufacturing concepts and things such as large data sets, machine learning, and decision augmentation as part of the learning environment,” Cuiffi said.
Known as the “Factory 4.0 Educational Toolkit,” the new curriculum is the result of a project led by New Kensington in partnership with MIT and Arconic, a global engineering firm. The project is one of just ten proposed solutions in the nation focused on workforce development and research in smart-manufacturing capabilities to receive funding from the Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CESMII). CESMII works with more than 200 partners from top universities as well as industry, national labs, and associations to advance manufacturing competitiveness, sustainability, and innovation in the United States.
Cuiffi is excited to usher in this type of workforce development for the campus and region.
“Being near Pittsburgh, there is a lot happening in areas like robotics, for instance, that make this a good place to be discussing this digital revolution. It’s something that the community needs to be aware of, and we’re happy to put Penn State New Kensington on the map for it.” –Joe Cuiffi
“Manufacturers in the area are interested in this idea and are spreading the word,” said Cuiffi. “Being near Pittsburgh, there is a lot happening in areas like robotics, for instance, that make this a good place to be discussing this digital revolution. It’s something that the community needs to be aware of, and we’re happy to put Penn State New Kensington on the map for it.”
Signs of Renewal
Part of the revitalization of downtown New Kensington has been the opening of The Corner, which is one of Penn State’s twenty-one innovation hubs located throughout the Commonwealth.
Thanks in part to a seed grant of $150,000 from Invent Penn State, The Corner opened as one of the first centers of its kind in Westmoreland County, which offers local entrepreneurs access to Invent Penn State’s signature LaunchBox programming, including a ten-week accelerator program, membership-driven coworking space, as well as a variety of workshops and networking events geared toward aspiring entrepreneurs.
“I see The Corner as a visible anchor in New Kensington’s transformation to a vital, vibrant community in an Industry 4.0 world where we’ve not only retained the essence of the community but created opportunities for all to participate in its revitalization,” said Rhonda Schuldt, innovation coordinator at The Corner. “I hope the community and the campus see The Corner as a resource.”
“I see The Corner as a visible anchor in New Kensington’s transformation to a vital, vibrant community in an Industry 4.0 world where we’ve not only retained the essence of the community but created opportunities for all to participate in its revitalization.”—Rhonda Schuldt
In addition to The Corner, Penn State looks to continue assisting with the physical revitalization of the New Kensington community.
Penn State’s Esther Obonyo, associate professor of engineering design and architectural engineering, along with members Penn State’s Material Research Institute, are working with community officials to find cost-effective ways to improve leaky roofs throughout the downtown area.
“Members of the community identify with the need for this intervention because they’re experiencing this problem either directly or indirectly,” said Obonyo, who has made many visits to the area to assess buildings in need of repair. “One of the values of this initiative overall is awareness creation. Repairing rooftops in the area has resulted in conversations that help the broader community understand the seriousness of the situation facing cities like New Kensington, but it has also helped in shifting the narrative. Yes, the buildings are damaged, but they can be fixed.”
Because building materials can equate to one-third of the total cost of construction, Obonyo and her team are working on a concept that uses innovative materials to reduce overall costs, lower energy costs, and optimizes the use of local resources.
“Repairing rooftops in the area has resulted in conversations that help the broader community understand the seriousness of the situation facing cities like New Kensington, but it has also helped in shifting the narrative. Yes, the buildings are damaged, but they can be fixed.” –Esther Obonyo
Obonyo was recently awarded a $25,000 grant from Penn State’s Institutes of Energy and the Environment to design and test a new roofing composite meant for use in dilapidated buildings. Both simulations and lab testing will be used to determine the model’s practicality in regards to waterproofing, insulation, and condensation minimization. The research team will use the gathered data to refine the initial prototype to deliver a detailed, sustainable, and energy-producing reroofing system.
Development of a successful prototype is important as it would translate into cost-savings for current and new business owners in the region.
“Transformational use of sustainable building materials would result in significant financial benefits, reducing construction costs while enhancing the use of scarce materials [in the area],” Obonyo said.
Snider’s hope is that by reinvesting in the community’s infrastructure in a cost-effective manner, new businesses will be attracted by the area’s affordable real estate market.
“We are working to revitalize a community through entrepreneurship, research, and education,” says Snider. “With the launch of The Corner, we hope to continue driving economic development by building attractive spaces, community parks, and bringing businesses back to the downtown area. By leveraging Penn State’s resources, we hope to do big things for this community.”
Invent Penn State is a Commonwealth-wide initiative to spur economic development, job creation, and student career success. Invent Penn State blends entrepreneurship-focused academic programs, business startup training and incubation, funding for commercialization, and university-community collaborations to facilitate the challenging process of turning research discoveries into valuable products and services that can benefit Pennsylvanians and humankind.