Photo by NEXT Staff.

Even for experts, it can be tough to keep track of the rapid pace of change and innovation in Pittsburgh’s advanced manufacturing sector.

Fortunately, Pittsburgh’s manufacturing community had a chance to touch base and catch up on Tuesday morning at Nova Place, when NEXTpittsburgh hosted a panel dedicated to innovators disrupting manufacturing in our city.

In Southwestern Pennsylvania “manufacturers are growing, they’re competing globally, and they’re attracting high-paying, family-sustaining jobs,” said Catalyst Connection CEO Petra Mitchell, who moderated the panel.

In keeping with the diverse range of industries that produce their products in Western PA, the panelists included speakers working in everything from automotive manufacturing to robotics to chemical engineering. The audience included a group of 11th graders from City Charter High School in Downtown Pittsburgh.

While our panelists and moderator delivered a wealth of information, here are 5 key takeaways:

1) Even machines need to have a heart.

Chris Moehle, founder of the robotics-focused venture capital fund The Robotics Hub,  said a public-spirited vision is more important than any particular technological innovation.

The Robotics Hub’s portfolio includes the housing company Module, which has produced a number of homes in the East End, and the indoor agriculture startup RoBotany.

“From our point of view,” Moehle said, “you can’t have a good business model without a good mission underlying it.”

2) Manufacture locally, think globally.

Rebecca Lucore, head of Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility at Covestro, discussed the way her company applied the vision of the U.N.’s sustainable development goals into every aspect of their process, whether it’s their office in Pennsylvania or their partners around the globe.

One particular initiative is the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Covestro and more than 25 companies throughout their supply chain are working together to develop and scale solutions to minimize and manage plastic waste and promote solutions for reusing, recovering and recycling.

In addition, “we have a great inclusive business model in developing countries where we’re helping farmers through our materials build solar dryers and dry their crops,” she said. “It can get to where it needs to go without refrigeration, and it’s still usable and eatable.”

From left: Panelists Arpan Shah, Rebecca Lucore, Chris Moehle and Tricia Breeger at NEXTpittsburgh’s innovators in manufacturing event.
From left: Panelists Arpan Shah, Rebecca Lucore, Chris Moehle and Tricia Breeger at NEXTpittsburgh’s innovators in manufacturing event.

3) Communication between the people handling the machines and the people designing them is key.

Tricia Breeger, general manager of Electrical Power Products’ Uninterruptible Power Supplies Division of Mitsubishi, emphasized that for many of their key company decisions, they rely on the knowledge and expertise of their staff on the factory floor just as much as their management and technical teams.

“We need some help, we need to hear some other voices,” she said.

4) So-called soft skills are just as important as hard technical training.

Arpan Shah, purchasing manager at Schroeder Industries, discussed how even people with non-technical backgrounds can end up playing a key role in the manufacturing process.

His original degree was in marketing, but working through the company’s in-house program, he’s been able to transition to the technical side of things. “I urge the students to find what they want to do,” he said.

His rise was helped by the fact that Schroeder has invested millions in leadership training programs over the last several years. In practical terms, this means each new manager receives interpersonal training on how to effectively communicate and create a positive work environment.

All too often, Shah said, workers are promoted to leadership roles without learning basic leadership skills.

“We want our employees to feel safe,” he said. “Trust is the foundation of any organization.”

Students from City Charter High. Photo by NEXT staff.

5) There’s more work to be done.

As Mitchell noted in her opening remarks, despite positive growth trends, local manufacturers are stymied by a shortage of employees. According to a survey conducted by Catalyst Connection and published last fall, 60 percent of local manufacturing companies say a shortage of skilled workers is having a “critical or significant” effect on their business.

And even for those already working in the field, persistent gaps remain. Breeger noted that the gender gap in the STEM economy is a great concern for her organization.

“There is a gap,” said Breeger. “It’s also an opportunity.”

While touting the many ways Mitsubishi uses internships and school visits to inspire young girls to pursue technical fields, Breeger also advised the young women in the audience to seek out companies that offer benefits like workforce training and educational support.

The event was underwritten by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

“I thought it would be boring,” said Amelia, a student at City Charter High School. “But it was new and interesting!”
“I thought it would be boring,” said Amelia, a student at City Charter High School. “But it was new and interesting!”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.