Group Wants Manufacturing Technology Center for O.C.

Despite pockets of prosperity, manufacturing still is a weak leg in the triumvirate of industries--developing, making and selling--that prop up Orange County's economy.

The number of manufacturing jobs in the county, once accounting for almost 25% of total employment, is down to about 17.7% and shrinking. Conventional wisdom has it that you can't afford to make things in Southern California anymore, that the economy is becoming one in which we all survive by peddling services instead of goods.

But the Orange County Business Council, run by corporate types who have a vested interest in things that succeed, hasn't written off manufacturing.

In fact, the council has launched a campaign to set up a Manufacturing Technology Center here. The center, to be jointly financed with federal and state grants, would be staffed by as many as a dozen full-time expert engineers to assist manufacturers in the county who would like to stay, and to help attract manufacturers who aren't here yet, but could be.

The area's one existing Manufacturing Technology Center, in Hawthorne, has been open for 3 1/2 years and says it has provided assistance of one sort or another to 1,500 companies. An in-house study of the first 50 companies the center worked with shows that they have added 1,300 jobs since 1993, increased sales an average of 18% and shaved an average of $200,000 from materials handling costs because of advice from the center's specialists.

Tim Cooley, a business council vice president, says a center could give Orange County a nice bargaining chip in the business retention and recruitment game--where no chip is too small to toss onto the table.

"We are trying to provide services to help new and existing manufacturers be more productive and efficient in their operations in Orange County," Cooley said.

Cooley also is urging county business executives to lobby legislators in Sacramento to approve Senate Bill 1801. The measure would simplify the process for gaining financing for manufacturing technology centers, establishing a single entity to deal with when applying for funding. So far he's enlisted lobbying aid from Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine, Irvine Valley College, the American Electronics Assn. and his own Business Council.

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