Advanced Manufacturing: The “Crystal Ball Approach”

Site selection for advanced manufacturing is a complex process in which companies weigh cost-savings versus replacing experienced staff.

By Tom Gresham
From the September / October 2023 Issue

For regions throughout North America, the competition to attract advanced manufacturing is stiff. The growing sector’s bright future and ability to produce large numbers of high-paying jobs make it particularly appealing to regions hoping to bolster their economies and strengthen opportunities for their workforce.

When a company is looking for a location, a significant focus is to mitigate risk.

“And we help them mitigate that risk,” said Bill Cronin, President and CEO of Florida’s Pasco Economic Development Council. “So that when they make a decision, they know they’ve got as much criteria as possible at hand, and that they’re making the best, most-informed decision for the future. For them, it is a crystal ball approach of how are they going to do at this site in the future.”

Site selection for advanced manufacturing
(Photo: Adobe Stock / rarestock / KjellIvar)


Because of the importance of finding the right site for an advanced manufacturer, these companies are taking increasing care to find the best location, and that includes turning more frequently to site consultants, according to John Lummus, President and CEO of the Upstate SC Alliance in South Carolina.

Today’s advanced manufacturing site decisions often are full of complexity—combined with an urgency to get a facility into operation.

“Companies are wanting to get speed to market quicker and think hiring someone that can assist with that is helpful,” Lummus said. “So that’s a trend that we’ve really seen, because it’s gotten more complex with these decisions, and then the speed makes it even more so.”

Talent Drives Decisions

For advanced manufacturing, a large workforce with sophisticated technical skills is at the top of the list in site selection.

“Talent’s always got to be what drives these decisions,” Cronin said.

Joanne McClaskey, Executive Director of the Industry Business Council in Industry, CA, said the availability of a qualified employee pool means approximately 150 to 500 workers per industrial manufacturer. Advanced manufacturers seek a diverse skill set, such as assembly, maintenance, warehousing, specialized and general equipment operation, refrigeration, specialized manufacturing equipment, and office and bookkeeping.

“Companies choose to move when the cost savings outweigh the cost and difficulty of replacing experienced employees.”

— Joanne McClaskey, Executive Director,
Industry Business Council, Industry, CA

“Many manufacturing processes utilize customized equipment requiring experienced operators,” McClaskey said. “These are critical workers with specialized knowledge and experience. Needing to replace specialized employees is the main reason why companies prefer not to relocate. Companies choose to move when the cost savings outweigh the cost and difficulty of replacing experienced employees.”

Tom Manskey, Director of Economic Development for the Odessa (TX) Chamber of Commerce, said one reason communities hope to attract advanced manufacturing is that it tends to create high-paying jobs. Those jobs require a higher-level skill set with a technology focus than most traditional manufacturing positions, he said. Demonstrating that a region can adequately fill those positions is essential.

“When we bring in new employers with good-paying jobs, we’ve been able to work with the employers to get those positions filled,” said Manskey, who noted that workers are drawn to advanced manufacturing jobs in the Odessa region not only locally and from other parts of Texas but from nearby New Mexico.

Lummus said the Upstate South Carolina region, which comprises 10 counties and about 1.5 million people, has approximately 120,000 people working in manufacturing and approximately 2,300 manufacturers, including a number of advanced manufacturers.

“We have a really good pool of talent that are working in automotive, aerospace, plastics, metals—all types of advanced manufacturing areas,” said Lummus. “An advantage we have is the amount of engineering talent—we have two-and-half times the national average of industrial engineers in our region.”

Advanced Manufacturing Pipeline

Advanced manufacturers are not just looking to satisfy their immediate workforce needs when they consider a site, Cronin said. They are considering their future needs and the available talent pipeline that can serve those needs.

“If you’re really looking at, ‘How do you win long term?’ You better have a long-term, sustainable strategy for talent,” Cronin said. “And that means making sure that even K-12 is focusing on curriculums that are needed for manufacturing.”

Mike Brungardt, City Administrator for De Soto, KS, said the details of the workforce matter.

“Numbers are important, but also the nature of that workforce is important,” he said. “There are certain regions where the workforce might be a service industry-type workforce, and that might not match with advanced manufacturing work.”

Site selection for advanced manufacturing
Rendering of the Panasonic battery factory that will be built in De Soto, KS. (Photo: Panasonic Energy Company)


The presence of colleges and universities, as well as technical schools, is vital to attracting advanced manufacturing and demonstrating that talent will be developed locally to continuously supply a productive workforce, Lummus said.

Manskey said the Odessa Chamber of Commerce is partnering to promote its higher education institutions, including the University of Texas Permian Basin, and Odessa College, which has a training program geared toward different forms of advanced manufacturing.

“They’re very nimble,” Manskey said. “They sit with the employer and develop a program specifically for that employer’s needs. That’s one of the more important things, is that you not only have some of those skill sets already in place here, but that you can have a pipeline in place that can continue to provide quality employees for that advanced manufacturer.”

Workforce development programs tailored to advanced manufacturers also can play a vital role. George Swift, President and CEO of the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, in Lake Charles, LA, said the Louisiana FastStart program customizes training for employers such as advanced manufacturers. It also offers training for up-and-coming workers on particular skills or certificates to meet their needs.

“If you can’t document that you have a workforce, it would be very difficult to locate a facility,” Swift said. “Advanced manufacturers look to see if you have educational institutions in your area. And we’re fortunate in that we have SOWELA, a technical community college, as well as McNeese State here. We can document graduates coming out of, say, process technology or instrumentation, and we can document the engineers coming out of McNeese State. You have to show that you can really supply a workforce.”

A Location That Fits

No matter how enticing the workforce and regional resources are, the site location has to meet the advanced manufacturer’s needs for it to even be considered, according to Swift.

“That could be that they need rail or a deepwater port or shallow draft port or interstate or a combination of all of it,” Swift said. “The location has to make sense.”

Each area has its own inherent geographic strengths and weaknesses, Swift said, attracting companies that fit those strengths.

For example, he said, Southwest Louisiana offers a 30-mile waterway route from Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico—an access feature that has attracted petrochemical companies.

Available infrastructure is crucial for advanced manufacturing, Lummus said. For instance, he said Upstate South Carolina, which has seen companies such as BMW, Michelin and ZF open facilities in the region, benefits from its proximity to the Port of Charleston and an inland port in Greer, as well as recently ramped-up cargo services at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.

“The transportation network and infrastructure that you have to have to move goods is very important,” Lummus said.

De Soto, KS, features the Astra Enterprise Park, which formerly was a U.S. Army ammunition plant, available to advanced manufacturers. The roughly 9,000-acre site is within 30 minutes of 2.5 million people and has existing infrastructure to support extensive new development.

“Land availability obviously is important,” Brungardt said. “Advanced manufacturers often need hundreds of acres, and it’s best if it’s all under one ownership and readily available without encumbrances. And with advanced manufacturing, they’re all big users of power and big users of water. So that infrastructure needs to be there.”

Report: Chicagoland & Advanced Manufacturing

Chicagoland’s traditional manufacturing prowess is rapidly evolving, allowing the region to leverage its historical dominance into a leader in advanced manufacturing and innovation. The driving force behind this evolution is a collaborative spirit, showcased by the Greater Chicagoland Economic Partnership (GCEP)—a consortium including the city and seven neighboring counties, namely Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry, and Will.

A research report from World Business Chicago called “Innovation in Manufacturing & Chicagoland’s Advantages” serves as a compelling roadmap to the region’s rise. The study reveals that innovation isn’t limited to high-tech sectors; in fact, for every high-tech manufacturer pushing the envelope, three metal fabrication companies are doing the same. This points to a diversified, agile manufacturing environment.

This spirit of cooperation extends beyond manufacturing firms to include suppliers and customers. Many companies in the region leverage external specialized knowledge, underscoring the region’s culture of open innovation. Notably, local manufacturers source nearly 50% of their inputs within the region, underscoring the advantages of Chicagoland’s ecosystem. The regional approach is attracting global attention: recent wins include a competitive bid for Chan Zuckerberg BioHub and a $141 million investment from UPSIDE Foods for a production facility in Cook County.

The role of academia should not be overlooked. Local universities and research labs like Argonne and Fermilab are significant contributors to Chicagoland’s ascent in sectors like quantum technology and life sciences.

Government support is also diverse. Nearly half of the manufacturers use programs beyond conventional tax incentives, offering an expansive portfolio of resources for innovation. Illinois ranks fifth in the U.S. for its contributions to technological and manufacturing advancements, a testament to the strategic focus on innovation..

As Robin Ficke, SVP of Research at World Business Chicago, notes, these elements collectively reinforce Chicagoland’s reputation as a dynamic, innovative manufacturing hub: “The GCEP, with its focus on collaboration and broad-based growth, is setting the stage for Chicagoland to be an attractive destination for global manufacturing enterprises.”

In July 2022, Panasonic announced plans to open a $4 billion facility at the Astra Enterprise Park site, where it will produce lithium ion battery cells for electric vehicles. The estimated regional economic impact of the project – the largest in Kansas history – is $2.5 billion annually, including 4,000 projected jobs and another 4,000 indirect jobs.

“With Panasonic being the spark, we think it’s a great anchor tenant for what could become a major jobs hub with advanced manufacturing jobs in the region.”

— De Soto (KS) Mayor Rick Walker

Panasonic’s site is expected to be operational in early 2025.

“The reason the Army picked this site in the 1940s to build a munitions plant was because of great access to labor, great access to utilities, and a centralized location for logistics, and all those conditions still exist,” said De Soto’s Mayor Rick Walker. “With Panasonic being the spark, we think it’s a great anchor tenant for what could become a major jobs hub with advanced manufacturing jobs in the region.”

Manskey said the Odessa Chamber of Commerce has worked to have more sites in the region suited and ready for advanced manufacturing to move in quickly.

“You learn working with advanced manufacturing that—depending on their schedules—a lot of them are moving fast,” Manskey said.

“Whether they’re building something new or looking for an existing facility, they need to move pretty fast in that direction. And if you don’t control the site or have any control over it, sometimes that can slow things down for them. So a shovel-ready site that’s already got all the appropriate permitting in place, infrastructure, things of that nature, can be a big help.”

Brungardt said De Soto is looking to make clean energy options readily available at the former ammunition plant—including setting aside space for a solar farm—as advanced manufacturers emphasize an interest in limiting their carbon footprint.

“Green energy is really important to them,” he said.

Embracing Change & Efficiency

Regions must strive to attract advanced manufacturers and create an overall climate that appeals to them.

Among the key resources that regions can offer advanced manufacturing companies are tax incentives; reduced, supplemented lease rates; power and energy reliability; power and energy supplements and credits (such as solar credits); and road improvements, signals and turn lanes, McClaskey said.

The advanced manufacturing industry emphasizes quality and efficiency, according to Cronin.

“You’ve got to demonstrate that your community does have that quality and does embrace efficiencies and makes changes,” Cronin said. “Are you forward thinking in your community? Will you be able to keep up with the business? Is the business going to have to wait on you, or your government, or your bureaucracy? Unless it’s a safety issue, they should never be waiting for us.”

Site selection for advanced manufacturing
Wenker, with a South Carolina site, specializes in plant engineering, innovative modular factory and paint shop designs, and fabricated metal products for the auto industry. (Photo: Wenker)


Experts agree that incentives rarely are in the foreground of the site selection process for advanced manufacturers. Rather, they play a role in the final decision once a list has been shortened to comparable sites.

Walker said a contributing factor to attracting Panasonic to De Soto was Kansas tax incentives designed to attract “mega projects” that create high numbers of high-paying jobs.

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“I don’t think incentives alone make the deal,” Swift said. “They might be the difference in closing the deal.”

Brungardt said that a cohesive regional message, along with evidence that everyone is pulling in the same direction, can be essential for advanced manufacturers.

“What we’ve seen is that a lot of intangibles come into play —trust and personal relationships with local officials, the political atmosphere, the attitude of the community in general to manufacturing and industrial uses, the investments that communities have made in education,” Brungardt said.

“Because with these advanced manufacturing projects, some of them are spending billions of dollars—these are generational commitments—and they want to make sure the region they’re going into aligns with their vision and offers a positive environment.”

Check out the latest advanced manufacturing news related to economic development, corporate relocation, corporate expansion, and site selection.


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