‘This community works together:’ Wichita State leads coalition awarded $51.4 million

Senior Vice President John Tomblin shows attendees the virtual reality portion of the John Bardo Center on Oct. 4. The virtual reality room allowed for engineers to see the mechanics behind creating and designing robots.

Out of 529 applications, Wichita State was among the 21 recipients of the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). 51.4 million was awarded to “Driving Adoption: Smart Manufacturing Technologies program” an initiative led by Wichita State that will support the 27-county South Kansas region. On Tuesday, program managers, industry participants, local government leaders and Alejandra Y. Castillo, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, sat in on a round-table and discussed what the awarded funding will provide for the South Kansas region.

Castillo said this award was a big deal because it’s what’s going to propel the economy forward for growth and innovation.

“Twenty-one locations across the country brought about innovation and ideas that are going to truly be the engine of the economy for our country,” Castillo said.

Wayne Bell, SBA District Director, said that just before the pandemic, the region experienced a significant setback due to the 737 max grounding. Bell said the ecosystem came together to provide resources to the community that was impacted which helped galvanize the community and identified a critical aspect of the economy that creates so many jobs.

Bell said that according to the most recent census, manufacturing represents 59 thousand jobs across the state, including small businesses involved in manufacturing, and generates $2.1 billion in revenue.

“If we could give that community more resources or if we can help that community to be more innovative, to operate smarter, to create more jobs, to advance equity … It’s going to be a major win for our state and this region,” Bell said.

Waruna Seneviratne, Research Scientist and ATLAS Director at WSU NIAR, said that the demand for manufacturing is increasing and that their manufacturing needs to increase as well.

“We want to take this funding and develop those high skilled, high paid workforce,” Seneviratne said.

Associate Vice President of Strategic Communications and Marketing Tracee Friess said this coalition will further expand Wichita State, NIAR and industry opportunities in smart manufacturing.

“This funding will go toward establishing laboratories that can further smart manufacturing technologies and within those laboratories there will be additional opportunities for hiring students in an applied learning capacity,” Friess said.

According to the Smart Manufacturing Technologies site on wichita.edu, this coalition will help develop a solution that enables small and mid-size businesses to implement smart manufacturing technologies into their supply chain.

“This community works together,” Jeff Fluhr, president of Greater Wichita Partnership, said. “This campus, I think, demonstrates that too, with private companies and the public sector of the university itself, all coming together for the betterment of the community.”