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Lehigh Valley Leaders Discuss ‘Manufacturing Momentum in Bethlehem’

By Colin McEvoy on April 13, 2017

The "Manufacturing Momentum in Bethlehem" event included a panel discussion with speakers from B Braun Medical, Curtiss-Wright. OraSure Technologies, and Soltech Solutions.

The “Manufacturing Momentum in Bethlehem” event included a panel discussion with speakers from B Braun Medical, Curtiss-Wright. OraSure Technologies, and Soltech Solutions.

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez believes that perhaps no other Pennsylvania city has seen more changes in manufacturing over the past 25 years than the city of Bethlehem.

When Bethlehem Steel shut its doors in 1995, it was the city’s largest employer, landowner, and taxpayer, and its closure resulted in the loss of more than 25,000 jobs and left behind 1,800 acres of brownfields.

Since then, the city has worked to remediate portions of blighted areas and steadily rebuild and reinvent the city’s landscape, Donchez said. Today, the Sands Casino Bethlehem Resort and ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks stand on former Steel land, the city has become a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship, and it is considered a haven for new startup companies thanks to such programs as the Southside Bethlehem KIZ and Ben Franklin TechVentures.

“Bethlehem has become a focal point to launch businesses or relocate businesses, which in turn makes our city a great place to live, work, play, and raise a family,” Donchez said during “Manufacturing Momentum in Bethlehem,” an April 12 event co-hosted by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC) and the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce.

More than 100 people attended the event at the Foundry Room of the Sands Casino Bethlehem Hotel, where the speakers discussed how manufacturing in Bethlehem has evolved from being focused on a single large manufacturer, to a strong and diversified collection of many smaller manufacturing facilities.

A Manufacturing Outlier

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez speaking at the "Manufacturing Momentum in Bethlehem" event.

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez speaking at the “Manufacturing Momentum in Bethlehem” event.

LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham noted that manufacturing is still the top economic sector in the Lehigh Valley, generating $5.56 billion – or 15 percent – of the region’s $37 billion overall gross domestic product (GDP).

“To put that into perspective, in the United States in general, manufacturing is only 10 percent of the GDP, so we’re a bit of an outlier in that way,” Cunningham said. “There are about 680 manufacturers in the Lehigh Valley employing about 32,000 workers.”

Cunningham moderated a panel discussion featuring manufacturing leaders from the Lehigh Valley, which included Doug Michels, President and CEO of OraSure Technologies; Michael Planer, Chief Technology Officer of Soltech Solutions; Rex Boland, VP and GM, Allentown Operations, for B Braun Medical; and Todd Schurra, General Manager of Curtiss-Wright.

OraSure Technologies is a leader in the development, manufacture and distribution of oral fluid diagnostic and collection devices to detect or diagnose critical medical conditions. They developed the first rapid HIV test, and developed similar tests for the flu, Hepatitis C, and the Ebola virus.

Michels said one of the biggest benefits of being located in Bethlehem is access to a strong workforce to produce their high-tech products. 2016 was a record year for demand, and he expects 2017 to be one as well.

“Our revenues are growing substantially, and this year we’re going to be near-doubling our manufacturing output,” Michels said. “… We’re going to be here for a long time. Certainly as long as I’m in charge.”

A Miniature Silicon Valley

B Braun, global medical device manufacturer, makes 6,705 products within the U.S., with 3,600 coming from its Lehigh Valley facility. Boland said over the next four years, B Braun plans to invest more than $1 billion in its operations in North America, a “good portion” of which will be here in the region.

“One of the biggest benefits here are the schools: from the technical arena to the many colleges we have in the Valley,” Boland said. “The average age in our facility is 49. So we’re going to need that influx of high-tech talent that we’re going to get from the local schools.”

Curtiss-Wright is the nation’s leading supplier of mission-critical pumps for the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers and submarines, and manufactures highly-engineered, critical function products and services to the commercial, industrial, defense, and energy markets.

Planer was the sole startup represented on the panel. Soltech Solutions is a manufacturer of state-of-the-art LED grow lights, which moved into the Bethlehem business incubator Pi: Partnership for Innovation this year and was recently awarded a $15,000 technology transfer grant from the Southside Bethlehem KIZ.

Planer said he previously tried to manufacture his products in China, but was unimpressed with the end result, and found the quality much better when built in the United States and Bethlehem. Soltech conducted a nationwide search for a location for his startup, and settled on the Lehigh Valley due to its incentives and strong network of support for entrepreneurs.

“This area is amazing,” Planer said. “We wouldn’t be able to do this anywhere else. It’s almost like a miniature Silicon Valley for us.”

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