Technology Center to Use Grant to Open Local Office

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When Kraig Baron, president of Western Saw Inc., a manufacturer of parts for diamond saws, decided to upgrade his company's computer systems, he realized that he lacked the expertise within his Oxnard company to make the right choices.

But instead of hiring an expensive consultant, Baron turned to the California Manufacturing Technology Center, a private nonprofit organization in Hawthorne that helps small and mid-size manufacturers improve their competitiveness.

The organization--which received a $25.8-million federal grant Thursday earmarked, in part, for establishing new offices in Ventura County--helped Baron choose among more than 300 vendors. With the new system, he said, he expects to save $40,000 in inventory costs within one year and see the 55-employee company double in size over the next few years.

"We used to have three different computer systems and two people doing what you would consider data entry," Baron said. "Now we are going to have one system to do all the accounting, production control, job costing and shop floor control."

The California Manufacturing Technology Center plans to spend $5.16 million during the next six years to operate a Ventura County office. The funding will increase the center's ability to help the more than 4,000 small and mid-size manufacturers in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, said Robert Patti, one of three consulting engineers who have been working with local businesses.

The grant, announced by Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor, is part of a national program to fund 18 so-called Manufacturing Extension Partnership centers, which aim to assist about 381,000 small manufacturers in 50 states. During an afternoon press conference, Kantor hailed the program as a model of public-private partnerships.

Locally, the technology center hopes to place as many as 17 engineers and consultants in a satellite facility in either Ventura or Thousand Oaks.

"We hope to have an office open within a few weeks," Patti said.

Any manufacturer with fewer than 500 employees qualifies for assistance from the organization, which aids companies with process and business improvements, plant modernization, shop floor improvements, pollution control, product design, systems modernization and work force development.

Each of the 350 manufacturers that the 4-year-old organization has worked with throughout Southern California has saved an average $200,000 in labor and materials, according to David Braunstein, president and chief executive of the technology center. Additionally, the center's clients have, on average, increased sales by 18% and hired seven new employees each, he said.

Patti said the local office, which will serve an area stretching from the western end of the San Fernando Valley to southern Santa Barbara County, will boost the area's economy.

"Manufacturing jobs are worth a lot more to the economy than service sector jobs," he said. "Our history has been very good in increasing employment, and we feel we are going to have a significant impact."

But UC Santa Barbara economist Mark Schniepp, who tracks the local economy, questioned the impact that the federal grant would ultimately have on local manufacturing. Given the scale of job losses caused by defense industry cutbacks and the recession, a lot more money is needed to help the manufacturing sector bounce back, he said.

"Five million is not very much compared to the total amount of revenues that the manufacturing sector produces in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties," he said. "The impact will be minimal, given how much manufacturing these areas do have."

In Ventura County, the organization has already assisted 10 companies in the past four years.

Patti is working on projects with Art Dreams Inc., a Ventura-based manufacturer of picture frames and mirrors; Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp.'s operations in Oxnard, and Industrial Tools Inc. in Ojai.

With the new office, he said, the technology center's assistance to local companies should grow dramatically.

"In the first year, we hope to reach as many as 50 companies," Patti said.

The California Manufacturing and Technology Center can be reached at (800) 300-2682.

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