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By Lesli A. Maxwell -- Bee Staff Writer - (Published February 12, 2004)

Squeezed around a table in a Sierra College classroom, managers from area manufacturing companies snapped red and green Lego pieces together, hurriedly passing the evolving robot shapes to their right.

Behind them, two supervisors gave orders, while a supply man kept the workers on the line stocked with Legos. In six minutes, the group had produced 15 green robots and 15 red - just what the customer wanted.

This odd-looking, robot-making exercise was meant to show these managers how to keep wasted time and supplies to a minimum on the assembly line. It also was part of a larger lesson on becoming more profitable.

Their teachers: Chris Turner and David Jones, two private manufacturing and business consultants.

The students: managers from local companies that ranged from a packaging manufacturer in Yuba City to an electronics firm in Roseville.

Their link: Sierra College's Center for Applied Competitive Technologies, which matches local companies looking for new technologies and higher profits with consultants who know how to get them.

The Sierra College center is one arm of what has become a large network of economic development programs run by California's community colleges. The schools are offering small-business counselors, financial advisers, and manufacturing and technology experts to small and medium-size companies that have the potential to create more jobs and crank more capital into local economies.

Paid for largely with state and federal grants, most advice and consulting services are offered to companies for free or at low cost.

"We help retain jobs, too, by helping make companies more efficient and profitable and able to keep people hired," says Sandra Scott, Sierra College's director of economic development.

An executive at Roplast Industries Inc., a plastic bag manufacturer in Oroville, said the Lego exercises and other techniques taught to his 100 employees have led to improved speed and efficiency.

"We've become a company that is driven more by customer demand rather than forecasts," says Chris Mann, vice president of operations.

In 1996, economic development became part of the core mission of the state's 108 community colleges, adding to its already gargantuan task of preparing thousands of students every year to transfer to four-year universities.

Mann thinks it's smart for companies to tap the college-run economic development programs. He is planning to cooperate with Sierra College by allowing managers and employees from other companies to visit Roplast.

"It can benefit our company, other companies and by extension, the economy, too," Mann said.

The center serves companies in all Northern California counties outside the Bay Area. More information can be found on the Web site, http://www.cact.org/.

    About the Writer
---------------------------
The Bee's Lesli A. Maxwell can be reached at (916) 321-1048 or lmaxwell@sacbee.com.
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