Polaris MEP event helps R.I. manufacturers connect, prosper

GETTING TO KNOW R.I.: Local manufacturers gathered at the WaterFire Arts Center in Providence on March 22 to make connections with other local companies. / PBN PHOTO/MARK S. MURPHY
GETTING TO KNOW R.I.: Local manufacturers gathered at the WaterFire Arts Center in Providence on March 22 to make connections with other local companies. / PBN PHOTO/MARK S. MURPHY

Zack Sasa and Signature Cable Inc. in Cranston have been in business for 13 years, making cables and harnesses in batches of one, 10, even 100, as well as performing injection molding, to meet the needs of companies in the region and across the nation.

But Sasa never felt like he had the time to explore the full measure of resources – both customers and suppliers – in Rhode Island. And for that reason he set up a booth at the second Rhode Island Manufacturing B2B gathering, held March 22 at the WaterFire Arts Center in Providence.

“We really love to work with local suppliers and try to keep the business in Rhode Island,” he said.

One reason that he gives for working with local, often small companies is the level of customer service they can provide, a perspective he identifies with. His shop, which has a dozen people now but has been as high as 20, prides itself on doing custom work at competitive prices.

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Last year’s RIMFGB2B event had 51 exhibitors set up tables and walk the aisles in order to learn more about the manufacturing ecosystem in Rhode Island. This year the exhibitor count grew, and the event’s organizer, Polaris MEP, estimates that 284 people attended. They came to be seen by potential customers and suppliers, as well as build potential partnerships.

Christian Cowan is the director of Polaris, the nonprofit business unit of the University of Rhode Island Research Foundation that is designed to provide business-improvement programs to the state’s manufacturers. Polaris, along with 54 exhibitors, put on RIMFGB2B for a second year because “we keep going around to Rhode Island companies and they continue to ask me how to find local customers [and suppliers],” Cowan said.

“Everyone raved about the engagement at last year’s event and asked for a bigger venue,” he added. Hence the move into the former locomotive factory in Providence’s Valley neighborhood.

Success for Cowan is simple to define – did local companies make those connections that lead to new business? Sasa seems to think so.

“We made some strong connections, and we will follow up with them … and hopefully we can help them out,” Sasa said.

Cowan said that as good as last year’s event was, he and his team added a deeper level of engagement, giving some of the state’s largest manufacturers an opportunity to meet one-on-one with smaller companies that could be suppliers to them.

Toray Plastics (America) Inc., the North Kingstown maker of plastic wrapping and film, sat down with a number of small companies, including Benz Materials Testing Instruments, a Providence-based, 50-year-old, family-owned maker of testing equipment. In an all-too-often occurrence, Cowan said, while seeing about how it could use more of Benz’s testing instruments in its facility, Toray found out that it already had a number of them in use, and now really wants to use more of them.

For Cowan, that anecdote speaks directly to his aims for the event.

“The ultimate success from my point of view,” he said, “is if local manufacturers increase their business as a result of the event. … It’s really about shifting more business to in-state suppliers and customers” from doing business out of state.