If one were to picture the American Rust Belt, they might conjure up images of derelict railroad tracks or abandoned factories, now a shell of their former glory. The decline of local manufacturing since the 1970s has left many communities without definitive economic direction. However, the enterprising spirit that contributed to this region’s past prosperity burns as brightly as ever in the 21st century. Responding to the need for economic revitalization and technical re-skilling, the newly constructed Digital Foundry aims to refresh rust belt communities ravaged by shifting industry. New Kensington, PA, will be the pilot site of this intervention, a collaboration between Penn State New Kensington and the Economic Growth Connection of Westmoreland.
Responding to the need for economic revitalization and technical re-skilling, the newly constructed Digital Foundry aims to refresh rust belt communities ravaged by shifting industry.
In the words of Dr. Kevin Snider, Campus Chancellor of Penn State New Kensington, the Digital Foundry represents “a gateway to the fourth industrial revolution.” The Digital Foundry was conceptualized as a makerspace for the digital age. Traditional makerspaces contain tools, materials, and skills training to help community members create physical objects. These spaces tend to offer high-tech fabrication tools such as lasercutters, CNC machines, or 3-D printers, but the Digital Foundry project is focused on pushing further and establishing itself as a competitive Industry 4.0 training center. As a leader in the design of manufacturing futures for the region, R3A was excited to originate this oasis of urban renewal.
R3A Design Manager Jozef Petrak pointed to the pervasive unknowns of designing an Industry 4.0 space as a major point of satisfaction for this project. “If you’re designing a library or a hospital,” he said, “those have ingredients that you’re familiar with. But with Industry 4.0, you’re designing for the unknown because they’re going to be developing technologies and implementing processes that aren’t defined yet.” Despite all of these unknowns and the challenges they present, “the process was an inspiration and a joy,” according to Dr. Snider. “It was great to go through a process with passionate people who care about what this building is going to support.”
“…the process was an inspiration and a joy,” according to Dr. Snider. “It was great to go through a process with passionate people who care about what this building is going to support.”
“Transparency was one of the primary drivers,” said Petrak. “One of our initial exercises was to 3-D print the rooms and ask the group to organize them. We thought the high-bay would be in the back — as a knee-jerk reaction — but Kevin was the first to propose that it be on the front. We wanted the community to see that there’s something exciting going on in there and want to be a part of it.”
The design process sought to satisfy a variety of challenging constraints and stakeholders. “One of the first things we talked about when we first met,” said Petrak, “were the end-users. It was a broad spectrum: K–12 students all the way to industry partners. There was such a variety, and I think that’s what’s going to make [the Digital Foundry] a vibrant place to be.” Digital Foundry Executive Director Sherri McCleary echoes Petrak’s sentiment, believing the space will be “a great asset” to university students, K-12 students, and local manufacturing workforces alike. “In my early conversation with Kevin,” said McCleary, “we need to prepare students for the rapid changes that are coming, but we also need to help local businesses stay current or they will cease to exist.”
The Digital Foundry’s mission as a beacon for future-proofing its local community is expansive, but with substantial support from local funders like R.K. Mellon and mounting local excitement, the project is sure to create a powerful impact on the region and beyond.
The design and build process was supported by our consultant team, which consisted of: Barber & Hoffman, Inc. (Structural); Gateway Engineers (Civil); CJL Engineering (MEP); BrightTree Studios (AV); Monmade (Product/Graphic Design); Mosites Construction and Development Co. (Construction Manager). For more information about the project, or to engage with the Digital Foundry’s services, please visit https://digitalfoundrynk.com.