GRAND RAPIDS — With the new AMP Lab @WMU that’s set to open this fall, Western Michigan University wants to leverage public- and private-sector partnerships to help local manufacturers innovate and access talent.
WMU is investing $3 million to convert the bottom two floors of its building at 200 Ionia Ave. SW in downtown Grand Rapids into a state-of-the-art manufacturing incubator. The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Laboratory will test new technologies and also develop aspiring engineers, designers and other skilled workers who remain in high demand among the region’s employer base.
By combining prototyping, professional workshops, training, K-12 outreach, small-scale manufacturing and advanced education opportunities in one space, and by partnering with a range of companies and higher education institutions, WMU wants to position the program at the forefront to solve key challenges for industry.
“This is an incubator for innovation around manufacturing,” said Dr. Dawn Fortin Mattoon, associate provost for WMU Extended University Programs. “What we are trying to do is decouple specific educational pathways — to be able to take learning however the individual needs it. Rather than say you’re in a master’s program, you’re in a bachelor’s program, we want to be able to do just-in-time learning to go along with that innovative manufacturing process.”
The initiative also tapped into other institutions across the region, including Grand Rapids Community College, Ferris State University, Central Michigan University, Aquinas College and others.
“The significance is the level of partnerships — that partnership with private industry and multiple public institutions that’s incredibly difficult to implement,” Fortin Mattoon said. “That’s the uniqueness of this program.”
Corporate partners include Herman Miller Inc., Paragon Die and Engineering Co. and Autocam Medical Devices LLC.
Fortin Mattoon said this model differs from previous efforts in its “level of integration between research, development, programming (and) integration from all levels of education and the direct talent development with employers.”
Dr. Steve Butt, chair of the industrial and entrepreneurial engineering and engineering management department at WMU, said the model allows students to choose between a range of academic programs, from associate through master’s degrees, which will help differentiate it from other programs. The goal is to be responsive to the changing needs of the industry, he said.
“We know industry and manufacturing changes, so we want to be flexible enough,” Butt said. “We built this space so it is flexible, so we are always open to new partners and new ideas in terms of trades in manufacturing.”
Butt said he wants to talk one on one with different partners about their talent needs, discussing issues like training and apprenticeships.
Already, the AMP Lab has started conversations with manufacturers to address their various needs around talent.
“We have already had a few folks contact us about ideas, particularly for their part of the industry,” Butt said. “Hopefully, we will get more people to talk to us and get those commonalities and push forward on initiatives that seem to have the biggest bang for their buck.”
In announcing the creation of the AMP Lab, the university credited Autocam Medical President John Kennedy for helping connect the program with industrial partners.
“The AMP Lab is a makerspace in its truest form, addressing the needs of entrepreneurs and providing a space to bring ideas to life,” Kennedy said in a statement at the time. “Programming (at) this facility will foster a format of collaborative learning between educators and students.”
While the equipment at the AMP Lab will help engineers and designers test new technologies, manufacturers will benefit most from the program’s efforts to foster new skilled talent, Fortin Mattoon said.
With the West Michigan region effectively nearing full employment, companies are struggling to fill open positions and find appropriately skilled labor.
For example, respondents to the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual survey last month cited the availability of skilled labor and talent retention as their top concerns. Nearly 80 percent of companies that added jobs in the last 12 months said they struggled to find qualified applicants, up from 51 percent in 2014.
“There’s a major talent shortage,” Fortin Mattoon said. “(Manufacturers’) ongoing conversation is how do we get talent, that they are so short that their operations are at risk. … (AMP) is going to provide incredible opportunities that improve quality of life for individuals in West Michigan by making that talent connection, getting that individual equipped to serve the employers.”
Many manufacturers in search of talent need better access to resources, training facilities and other connections, according to Butt.
“We have world-class researchers in the manufacturing areas, and we hope to have a consulting purpose as well,” he said.
Additionally, AMP aims to give area high school students the opportunity to earn dual enrollment credits, deepening the bench for the talent pool of the future.
“There are a lot of places to jump off from the academic side,” Butt said. “What we are also looking at from the entrepreneurial side is we have access to many facilities. For example, at the (WMU) research facility down in Kalamazoo, we are also partnering with Aquinas (College) with our industrial/entrepreneurial engineering program. There are a lot of ways how this is going to make links to basic manufacturing, advanced manufacturing and also into product design.”