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Catalyst Connection Celebrates 30 Years Helping Manufacturers

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If we all were to climb into the “Way-Back Machine” and set the dial for 30 years ago, what a different Pittsburgh region we would find.

In the late 1980s, the local economy knew it needed to keep battling, keep hoping, keep searching for a solid path forward. The collapse of the local steel industry had begun to recede in the rearview mirror, but the pain and foundational shift it caused remained to be resolved. Would this region ever regain its legacy of manufacturing?

[caption id="attachment_3632" align="alignleft" width="300"] Petra Mitchell, Catalyst Connection CEO, with Ray Yeager, Chairperson Emeritus of the Catalyst Connection Board.[/caption]

Enter Catalyst Connection, or as it was known at its founding, the Southwest Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Program, or SPIRC. Established by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development, the organization was founded to help local manufacturers evolve from steel.

Over the past 30 years, Catalyst Connection has served as a policy advisor and hands-on assistant working on behalf of small manufacturers across the region.

By helping companies continue to diversify, Catalyst Connection has lived up to its name, continuously serving as the means by which the greater Pittsburgh region is continuously being repositioned to support the manufacturing demands of the future.

Petra Mitchell has spent 23 years with Catalyst Connection, and as CEO for the past 11 years. She has the deepest institutional knowledge and has had a front-row seat for all of the evolution and growth the organization has experienced for most of its history.

“Many manufacturing clients that we have worked with have been quite successful,” she said. “We believe our contribution to the local economy has been to help make sure that we are never again tied to a single industry. The manufacturing sector in this region today has become very diverse, which is a major reason why we have been able to weather storms, including the recession of 2007.

“In almost every sector covered, we’ve helped companies get in and out of changes in the competitive landscape, dealing with global competition and emerging markets,” she added.

The Catalyst Connection formula has been built on three primary areas of focus; each of which is meant to enable profitable sales growth leading to job creation:

• Product – including identifying and expanding new customers, products and markets.

• Process – defined as leveraging quality systems, ISO certification, lean manufacturing principles and continuous improvement practices.

• People – meant to support organizational development services, as well as hiring, training and retention strategies.

Manufacturing in the region represents a powerhouse of economic activity, with a greater presence and impact than many people might believe. More than 93,000 people work at 2,840 manufacturing establishments in southwestern Pennsylvania.  The average annual salary for employees working in the regional manufacturing sector is $54,091.

“Manufacturing is a people-driven enterprise,” Mitchell noted.  “It offers high wages, benefits and brings an economic multiplier effect whereby every manufacturing job created generates 1.23 times the economic activity.”

“Manufacturing is still one of the largest industries for employment in our region, but few residents are aware of the variety of careers available,” said Ray Yeager, Chairperson Emeritus of the Catalyst Connection Board. “By making local residents aware of the vast number of opportunities within manufacturing accessible to them, we can develop Pittsburgh into a super region full of economic potential.

“When organizations like us band together with other local organizations, universities, startups and government, we can develop a powerful regional network that draws its strength from key industries such as advanced manufacturing and technology, promotes its business opportunities, and adds significant value to all those involved,” Yeager added.

Last September, the Brookings Institute issued its comprehensive report, “Capturing the Next Economy: Pittsburgh’s Rise as a Global Innovation City,” emphasizing how vital it is for the city to stand out against its competitors and remain at the forefront of revolutionizing technologies. The report contended that such efforts support the goals of attracting the best talent, increasing the number of better-paying jobs and enhancing revenues that can be reinvested in education, workforce development, infrastructure and neighborhood revitalization.

Specific to Catalyst Connection, the Brookings Report has elevated the emergence and the need to provide policy, advisory and practical support to new industries locally, including additive manufacturing (3-D printing), cloud computing, advanced robotics and cybersecurity especially as it relates to the defense supply chain.

Pittsburgh’s reputation as a technology-driven manufacturing hub is only becoming stronger and more solid, said Mitchell.  The economic activity promised through the new Shell cracker plant in Beaver County has opened opportunities for Catalyst Connection to help companies in downstream petrochemical industry applications get involved. Department of Defense-related industries have more opportunities for growth, based on significant new federal funding to roll through the supply chain. A new General Electric manufacturing facility, along with activity at regional research universities, open the door to greater growth in the additive manufacturing space. And the robotics sector in Pittsburgh still has many years of development and expansion ahead.

“We are involved in helping manufacturers use technology for greater connectivity, automation, product development, equipment productivity, tracking and maintaining performance levels,” Mitchell explained.  “Our intent is to be always helping companies evaluate what’s best for them.”

Part of that includes fostering the next generation of manufacturing employees. Catalyst Connection works directly with area high schools and middle schools to share information and to get young people interested in careers in manufacturing. The organization also offers an industrial apprenticeship program, which lowers barriers to recruit and train new employees, as well as to provide mentors to help those new to manufacturing learn and succeed.

“Our first 10 years were focused on working with client manufacturing companies on productivity improvements, improving quality, reducing costs, lean manufacturing and achieving a shorter time to market,” Mitchell concluded.  “We’re still very good at that, but have expanded over the years to respond to changes in our customers’ markets. We have evolved into a much more comprehensive and holistic set of offerings today.”

Helping ALL-CLAD MetalCrafters Achieve Higher Levels of Quality

Catalyst Connection brought its Quality Management System (QMS) consulting services to help All-Clad Metalcrafters LLC put the processes in place to achieve higher levels of quality, reducing costs and increasing customer approval. Based in Canonsburg, All-Clad manufactures professional-quality bonded cookware for working chefs, gourmet home cooks and everyday foodies. Craig Wilson, Managing Director of Quality/Process Improvement at Catalyst Connection, served as the primary contact with All-Clad.

“Craig’s knowledge and experience with ISO systems and his ability to explain how and why the standards work the way they do was extremely helpful on this project,” said John Monson of All-Clad. “I have been able to make a significant impact to our quality management systems since the audit and I would be nowhere near this point without Craig’s help.”

Catalyst Connection conducted a QMS gap assessment of All-Clad’s current quality management system, including:

• A comprehensive review of their quality manual and procedural level documents.

• An audit of the company’s formal and informal operating practices to assess the level of implementation of the documented system.

• Generation and presentation of audit report.

The engagement allowed All-Clad’s management team to more accurately evaluate the level of effort necessary to achieve compliance with ISO standards.

Powering Up MEPPI’s Production

The production process at the Electrical Distribution Division of MEPPI – a manufacturer serving the North American power systems and rail transportation industries – had not changed for several years.

As such, it needed to assimilate manufacturing advances and efficiency gains while simultaneously making room to manufacture new products, essentially freeing at least 25% of their existing floor space for product expansion.  Catalyst Connection applied its operational excellence consulting services to produce better quality products faster and at a lower cost, including various lean manufacturing tools.

Catalyst Connection assisted MEPPI with creating a new production floor layout and mapping a new manufacturing process flow. By training and working directly with production employees, Catalyst was able to implement practiced routines (KATA) that empowered the MEPPI staff to create new and improved ways to assemble and test existing products. With KATA methodology, progressive manufacturing, and 5S, MEPPI achieved its goals by meeting their current production needs with 25% less.

“The Electrical Distribution Division maintains our emphasis on workplace safety, business development, product quality and advanced manufacturing across both mechanical and electrical product lines,” said Tricia Breeger, the facility’s General Manager.

Developing Leaders at RE2 Robotics

RE2 Robotics, which specializes in the manufacture of agile defense robotics with an emphasis on intelligent modular manipulation for mobile robotic platforms, needed to enhance its leadership development to maximize the value of its team.

Catalyst Connection provided a series of training experiences to the senior leadership at RE2 aimed at understanding their personal leadership styles and areas for improvement. This was coupled with training on Communication for Leadership Success, as well as effective leadership techniques.

Because the entire senior leadership team was trained at the same time in a private setting, RE2 was able to discuss specific situations and receive expert advice to help solidify a shared vision and leadership strategy.

“RE2 found that the Communication for Leadership success was so valuable, that we had Catalyst Connection teach a sister course with the same concepts and structure to the entire RE2 staff to provide a common lexicon and strategy for effective communication at all levels,” said Doug Peters, RE2 Robotics Vice President of Operations.

Story by Tim Hayes; Photos provided Catalyst Connection