New Kensington was once a global leader in manufacturing, where Alcoa began its world-spanning legacy of aluminum production. Like so many Rust Belt cities, the town fell on hard times as industry left in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
There have been efforts to change this narrative and to make sure that New Ken doesn’t miss the next wave of high-tech manufacturing. The city took a big step this week with the groundbreaking of the Digital Foundry, a collaboration between the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland County and Penn State New Kensington.
“The addition of this new lab and innovation space is so much greater than an unveiling of a new building in town,” says Sherry McCleary, director of the Digital Foundry. “We’re hoping the Digital Foundry at New Kensington will serve as a model for economic rehabilitation for other Rust Belt towns like New Kensington that have experienced similar downturns due to loss of industry.”
Scheduled to open in late 2021, the Digital Foundry will feature 15,000 square feet of collaborative space, digital labs and a high-bay workshop designed by Pittsburgh-based R3A Architecture.
“The mission of the Digital Foundry is to serve as a regional hub and a national model for the growth of ideas, learning and problem-solving to accelerate digital transformation for economic growth,” says McCleary. “We’ll do this by providing educational programs, a digital-physical maker space and networking for businesses, students and educators to explore digital technologies.”
The Richard King Mellon Foundation awarded $5.5 million to the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland and Penn State New Kensington to cover the cost of construction, outfitting the space and creating programming and training. Penn State University awarded $1 million to create an endowment for operational support.
The immediate priority is to help the manufacturing industry, and small manufacturers in particular.
“Manufacturers of all levels and sizes will have access to digital technologies and the ability to demonstrate their value through projects based on real-world problems,” says McCleary. “We will also offer workforce training, consultation and build awareness around current technology.”
There will be lots of hands-on opportunities for students to learn about advanced manufacturing, including those in local school districts.
“In areas like New Kensington and other Rust Belt communities, there is such a need for Gen Z to develop these fundamental skills and get the experience and inspiration to prepare for success in our rapidly changing digital world,” says McCleary. “We wholeheartedly believe this space can help lay the groundwork for the next industrial revolution’s workforce.”
Some of the technologies that the Digital Foundry will feature include 3-D visualization and simulation, data mining and analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, automation, smart manufacturing integration, and augmented and virtual reality. There will also be a maker space production area and an Industry 4.0 factory simulator.
Located on Fifth Avenue, the Digital Foundry isn’t an isolated effort, but rather a result of momentum that’s been gradually building in New Kensington for years.
“Strategically located between The Corner (Penn State New Kensington’s innovation hub) and Westmoreland County Community College-New Kensington, the Digital Foundry is being built along what’s being called the Corridor of Innovation,” says McCleary.
“The lab will be another example of how innovation and strong cross-sector partnerships can positively impact Rust Belt towns,” she adds. “We want to be a place that the community of New Kensington can be proud to call their own.”