- Innovation and Entrepreneurship
In September 2022, President Joe Biden announced the 21 winners of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC), a key component of his American Rescue Plan. The competition was designed to boost economic recovery from the pandemic and rebuild American communities, including those grappling with decades of disinvestment.
Among the awardees was the Southwestern Pennsylvania New Economy Collaborative (SWPA), which received more than $62 million in federal funding to establish Pittsburgh as a globally recognized leader in the robotics and autonomy cluster.
The BBBRC award is helping SWPA foster the adoption of robotic systems and artificial intelligence (AI) in all sectors throughout the region, support the commercialization of those industries, and promote workforce development through training and other related services. It was also intended to help revitalize a region that had, for more than a century, been prominent in the coal industry, following changes in the energy economy.
A major component of the award is the support of operations at Regional Industrial Development Corporation’s Mill 19. Housed in a former World War 2 munitions facility built in 1943, this manufacturing workspace has been redesigned to help connect technology innovators with industry pioneers. It is home to a number of organizations, including Carnegie Mellon University’s Manufacturing Futures Institute, the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, and Catalyst Connection, the regions Manufacturing Extension Partnership affiliate. Together, they are working to launch a new era of manufacturing, focusing on automation, robotics, and AI.
“We won World War 2 with the steel that was produced on this site, and we built America with the steel produced on this site,” said Don Smith, President of RIDC. “Now we’re building the robotics, AI, life sciences and other innovations that will power the next century of American prosperity.”
Today, through BBBRC funding, Mill 19 is developing coursework for industry partners and others to better demonstrate the use of robots in all aspects of manufacturing, including assembly and disassembly functions. Coalition members add that the purpose of this project is not to replace human beings, but to give them the tools needed to grow the manufacturing sector for decades to come.
“Our goal is to accelerate the adoption of advanced manufacturing and related industries,” said Petra Mitchell, President and CEO of Catalyst Connection. “Through the expansion of cybersecurity, robotics, digitization and more, we are working to support business growth, productivity, and job creation.”
For more than thirty years, Catalyst Connection, a non-profit organization, has provided consulting and training services to small manufacturers in southwestern Pennsylvania. It is working to expand the local advanced manufacturing sector, increase productivity, and accelerate economic growth throughout the region.
Catalyst Connection is continuing a long legacy of collaboration with the EDA. In 2013, the organization was selected as one of 24 communities to participate in the bureau’s Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership program, a government-wide initiative to create well-paying manufacturing jobs in regions across the country and accelerate the resurgence of manufacturing. More recently, it has continued to perform its responsibilities with funding received through EDA’s Assistance to Coal Communities program, which supports those communities negatively impacted by the decline in coal production.
Other coalition members, including the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, also see the value of Mill 19 and its potential to revitalize the manufacturing sector through EDA and the Build Back Better Regional Challenge.
“Mill 19 is a melting pot of programs to advance robotics throughout the manufacturing industry,” said Ben Pratt, Regional Economic Competitiveness Officer. “We’ve established a hub-and-spoke model to help de-risk and automate advanced manufacturing throughout the 11-county region.”
Like EDA, the Allegheny Conference is committed to supporting traditionally underrepresented communities, and Pratt sees this BBBRC investment as an extension of that commitment. It will expand cybersecurity, automatization, digitization, and additive manufacturing (3D printing) while ensuring that everyone plays a role in the process.
To read about other projects supported by the Economic Development Administration, please visit eda.gov.