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No longer "dark, dirty and dangerous," Utah manufacturing is a business increasingly driven by knowledge and technology, say those who want to help it grow.

After months of preparation, the University of Utah's College of Engineering launched a new expertise-sharing center Tuesday to assist the state's more than 3,000 manufacturing companies boost their productivity and expand jobs.

With 125,000-plus Utahns employed in the sector — 9.1 percent of the state's workforce — the U.'s new Manufacturing Extension Partnership, or MEP, has dramatic potential for improving the state's economy, officials said.

"I see a lot of promise in what is happening here," said Carroll Thomas, director of a national network of state MEPs with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, an arm of the U.S. Commerce Department.

The five-year, $16 million program — funded by NIST, the Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development and private industry — will offer advice to small- and medium-size companies on technology, training and reaching new investors.

The center will be housed in the U.'s Rio Tinto Kennecott Mechanical Engineering Building, with satellite offices in Cache and Utah counties and roving consultants stationed in eastern Utah and Cedar City.

At an inaugural open house Tuesday morning, Thomas said Utah's MEP — with counterparts in all 50 states and Puerto Rico — would bring great benefits from helping firms cope with the "astounding speed" of technological change.

"The Utah center is uniquely poised to guide manufacturers through this change," she said, "and deliver results with economic impact."

The center also will serve as a conduit to the private sector for wider academic expertise drawn from across the U. campus, its director, Scott Marland, said — particularly a host of university groups devoted to innovating in fields such as medicine, technology and engineering.

"We can take all of that back out to the community," said Marland, who added the center would offer "a bit of best practice and a bit of next practice."

Bart Raeymaekers, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and co-founder of the Utah MEP with professor Bruce Gale, said that basic approach reflected a major shift away from simply helping companies improve their operations.

"We believe the future of manufacturing involves transitioning to advanced manufacturing technologies," Raeymaekers said, "and innovating in new products and markets."

Added Ben Hart, a managing director with GOED, "Manufacturing doesn't look like it did 20 or 30 years ago. It's not dark, dirty and dangerous anymore. Everything about these shops speaks of advanced manufacturing at its finest."

That trend has pushed up industry wages, buttressing the center's impact on the wider Utah economy.

As of 2014, manufacturing offered an above-average median wage of $63,597 yearly in Utah, compared to $42,605 paid by other nonfarming businesses, the latest federal numbers indicate.

But, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation has lost nearly 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000. In Utah, the industry shed about 17,000 jobs from 2007 to 2010.

Twitter: @TonySemerad