New building, new ambitions

Though the ribbon-cutting for the almost 19,500-square-foot Engineering Innovation Hub on the SUNY New Paltz campus September 17 had been widely anticipated, a press release announcing that Central Hudson, which had already granted the manufacturing center $250,000 over three years, was kicking in another $200,000 to the project (a $50,000 match has already been contributed by local companies) added further support for the event. Most of the grant money’s for laboratory equipment, according to New Paltz science and engineering dean Dan Freedman.

Located near other science buildings on the campus, the Engineering Innovation Hub houses the college’s mechanical engineering program. It’s also home to the Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center (HVAMC), one of the most technologically advanced 3D printing labs in the nation. 

The new Central Hudson grant and private match will serve two major purposes, said Central Hudson spokesperson John Maserjian. It will support the education of future engineers. And it will benefit the part of the business community which has been making increasing use of the services of the HVAMC.

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As a New York State public utility, Central Hudson is regulated by the Public Service Commission. It’s tightly constrained in the way it invests ratepayer funds on economic development. According to Maserjian, it was permitted to establish an $11-million community investment fund when it sold its Danskammer and Roseton power generating plants back in 2000. It was allowed to add $5 million to that fund when Central Hudson merged with Fortis, an electric utility holding company that operates in Canada, the United States, Central America and the Caribbean, in 2013. 

Those funds are where the $450,000 in grant money for the HVAMC came from. According to Maserjian, more than three-quarters of the community investment fund has been spent. He said the utility was “investigating ways in which to replenish the spending.”

Since 2004, Central Hudson said, it had provided more than $13.7 million in support of development projects in its service territory. The New Paltz campus manufacturing center is just the latest of these recipients. Among the Ulster County entities that have received various kinds of Central Hudson grants for economic development have been Rupco, UPAC, Wolf-Tec and Stavo Industries in Kingston, Catsmo in Wallkill, Kora Components in Ellenville and Zumtobel in Highland. The City of Kingston and Town of Marlborough have received funding. An offer was made to Ceres Technologies (of Saugerties and Ulster) conditional on the resolution of a locational decision.

SUNY New Paltz graduated the first class in its new mechanical engineering program in 2017. Newly minted mechanical engineers trained in New Paltz will now be entering the regional labor force every year. The 374 undergraduate engineering students constitute about 35 percent of all undergraduates in the School of Science and Engineering. Another 152 undergrads are majoring in computer science, plus 62 in mathematics and 48 in physics. 

In terms of enrollment numbers, mechanical engineering has quickly eclipsed its other two engineering programs. This change partially reflects the change in the job base of the Hudson Valley. According to SUNY data, undergraduate enrollment in the spring semester was 95 students in electrical engineering, 54 in computer engineering, and 203 in mechanical engineering. 

The number of knowledge workers in a region trained in STEM (scientific, technology, engineering and math) fields is regarded in today’s economy as one of the great strengths a regional economy can have. By that standard, the Hudson Valley is in an advantageous position vis-à-vis many competitive regional economies. 

Under Freedman’s leadership, New Paltz’s engineering program has established particularly strong ties with numerous manufacturing firms in the region through its own connections and those of the Council of Industry of Southeastern New York in Newburgh. Several of these firms, including Selux and Zumtobel in Highland, Ametek Rotron in Woodstock, Schatz in Poughkeepsie, Ducommun in Coxsackie and ICL Industries in Tarrytown, have contributed to the business match required by last week’s Central Hudson grant. The Engineering Innovation Hub represents a unique partnership between the state and the regional community, and the regional education and business communities.  

Despite their growing significance, these school-industry connections can’t be the sole arrow in the region’s quiver. Manufacturing jobs constitute only about five percent of Ulster County’s non-farm labor force (3400 out of 63,900 as of August 2019), and that proportion isn’t expected to increase within the forseeable future.

“The equipment is here,” said Freedman, “and it’s available.” Wondrous though it can be, modern manufacturing technology grows obsolete all too quickly. In a rapidly changing setting, a flexible facility that can be quickly made available for a wide variety of different usescan be a great asset. The Engineering Innovation Hub is deceptively spare. Simplicity and flexibility are key. 

Power and computer data are accessed through lines in the ceiling. Small wheeled carts can be brought in and out for teaching mechanical engineering effectively. “You could say it’s one big lab on wheels,” said Freedman happily.

A $500,000 Dyson Foundation grant was of great assistance to obtaining equipment for the HVAMC. Moreover, the grant included a year’s services of a technician to set up the laboratory.   

Remember all the fuss a few years earlier about the Makerbot 3D printers coming to New Paltz? At first, that buzz was as much promise as reality. Some of the boundless optimism was premature. 

“Students have the opportunity to leave New Paltz equipped with the skills needed to navigate the second industrial revolution,” the college proudly announced at that time. Workshops for educators would attract a wide variety of teachers with an interest in digital design and fabrication who could use these new technologies in their classrooms. HVAMC would supply business and individuals with 3D design and fabrication services, including rapid prototyping and small-batch production for a range of clients at a fraction of the cost of conventional manufacturing.

With the opening of the Engineering Innovation Hub, these ambitious early expectations are now closer to realization. The HVAMC is introducing professional-level enhanced equipment from Stratasys, the leading maker of 3D printers. Freedman looks forward to having the capacity to produce not just three-dimensional models but continuous-build equipment. 

As it evolves, the New Paltz program can become a more significant provider of diverse manufacturing and engineering services that can more directly serve the needs of various stakeholders in the community of advanced Hudson Valley manufacturers. That’s the plan.

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