In January, students at Quinsigamond Community College became the first in the region to have access to a manufacturing facility where they can upload their blueprints, scroll through each other's plans and then 3D print out whichever parts they want to use or improve upon.
It's called a Fab Lab, and the first one in the region opened in Quinsigamond Community College's new QuEST Center. The idea of the Fab Lab is to give students the opportunity to work with and improve on a product they dreamt up in its physical form, said Jacob Longacre, assistant professor of electronics engineering technology at QCC. "A lot of times you come up with great ideas that you can create within a program, and they work, but there's no way to find out the flaws. If you can actually convert them to a physical item, you can figure out how gears might not mesh or how parts work with each other or how they're not strong enough," Longacre said. "Whatever real world things come up, you can actually identify them."
With the QuEST Center, Quinsigamond officials hope to train Central Massachusetts' next generation of manufacturers on the latest equipment and technology.
And they're not the only ones. The region is home to a venerable yet diverse manufacturing industry, where some companies are focusing on new markets, specialty products and workforce training to ensure continued growth for years to come.
Others, however, are still employing the traditional, labor-intensive practices for production.
"You have companies like [Spencer-based] FLEXcon, which are highly advanced … and then you have smaller machine shops, where they may be still using some of the older technology that is operative and more labor intensive," said John Killam, center director at the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP). "There's more of a blend of advanced and traditional manufacturing."
Although manufacturing employment in Massachusetts declined from 407,805 in 2001 to 248,253 in 2012 steadily – a 39-percent decrease – it is still one of the state's major economic drivers, according to a May 2015 study from the MIT Industrial Performance Center.
This is due to support for the state's advanced manufacturing fields, like biopharmaceuticals, aerospace, defense, computers and medical devices.
"What we're finding that [customers are] giving us work that is at higher profit margins, lower quantities. We've gone from what in the industry you call a 'low mix, high volume' to 'high mix, low volume,'" said Liora Stone, president of Precision Engineering in Uxbridge. "It might be more complicated work, or it might be work that the customer wants to keep it closer to where they are."
To find the best sources of revenue, Precision Engineering shifted its customer base past mostly the construction industry and into transportation, aerospace, defense and to a smaller extent, medical devices.
Advanced manufacturing is the region's largest and highest-paying subsector, accounting for 9 percent of the job base in Central Massachusetts – the highest share of anywhere across Massachusetts, according to a July 2014 study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The 27,803 people employed in the Central Massachusetts advanced manufacturing industry in 2012 represented 14 percent of all advanced manufacturing jobs in the state, according to UMass.
They were employed by 760 companies and earned, on average, $75,281 per year.
Despite its outsized influence on the region, all subsectors under the advanced manufacturing umbrella experienced losses between 2001 and 2012, according to UMass.
Most job losses were in computers and electronics and chemicals and plastics sectors.
Despite offshoring and job losses, one of the strengths of manufacturing in Massachusetts is the ability of those in the industry to innovate, and to shift business practices more towards what the needs of the market are, said Brian Gilmore, spokesman for the Associated Industries of Massachusetts.
"They have niches that are very narrow but are very deep as far as intellectual property, as well as adaptable to the world marketplace," Gilmore said. "They can be sold less on the price or cost of it, but can be sold on what they can deliver to the purchaser."
Kinefac Corp., a Worcester manufacturer specializing in metal forming and process technology, has stayed largely immune to the shifts in the industry, said owner Leslie Greis, because of a focus on research and development and selling to international markets.
Today, Kinefac is one of the last remaining precision metal tool companies remaining in Massachusetts.
"We were able to stay ahead by improving, processing and innovating to meet more challenging customer demands," said Greis.
It's been said over and over again, but the number one issue manufacturers worry will inhibit their future growth is workforce development.
The manufacturing workforce is aging, and companies are struggling to attract younger workers.
According to MassDevelopment, the next 10 years will bring about 1.2 million job openings in the Massachusetts manufacturing sector.
The median age for a worker in advanced manufacturing is 45, according to the UMass study.
A lot of efforts are being made to educate high school students on what manufacturing actually is, said Veda Clark, vice president of manufacturing initiatives at MassDevelopment.
"Folks don't understand that to go into manufacturing, you need all of the same skills sets beyond basic [science, technology, engineering and math requirements] – people skills, problem-solving skills. All these skills are needed in the industry," she said.
Mount Wachusett Community College offers associate's degrees in manufacturing technology developed through collaboration with area employers.
In many cases, the training certificates are free for students under a state grant.
The college received the Boston Foundation's 2016 Deval Patrick Award for its advanced manufacturing technology programs, which the foundation said are flexible and address the training needs of local employers.
Though there is work to be done, the QuEST Center at Quinsigamond has already made students excited about manufacturing.
"You can just tell the morale of the students has been affected," said Jim Heffernan, QCC coordinator of electronics and related programs. "They're really in a place that's delivering cutting edge education and technology."