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Open Lab Exemplified
Engineering firm leverages partnership with Behrend

Any successful business owner knows the value of a reliable supply chain. That’s true not only for materials but also for human resources. A pipeline of talent is as important to the bottom line as efficient shipping of raw materials or the right channel for cost-effective parts.

Joe Snyder ’97, president of Process and Data Automation, an Erie-based engineering and data-services firm, credits a partnership with Penn State Behrend and access to students and faculty members as a contributing factor in his company’s success.

“We have built our engineering core largely with graduates of Behrend’s electrical engineering and electrical and computer engineering technology programs,” Snyder said. “As we have expanded, so too has this relationship, with the addition and growth of our intern program and sponsored senior design projects.”

Annually, PDA employs a half-dozen interns, including ECET, EE, computer science and management information systems majors, and the company sponsors two to five capstone projects with the School of Engineering.

“We have very little luck recruiting the engineers we need from outside the Erie area,” Snyder said, “so we make them. We hire students to work in our design group and teach them how to apply the things they are learning into the systems we engineer here.”

PDA has no problem retaining its workforce.

“We have a very low turnover,” he said. “All but two of the first dozen employees we hired when we started the business in 2002 are still here.” Most of them are Behrend graduates.

Snyder himself graduated from Behrend with a degree in Electrical Engineering Technology, as did his former partner, Mike Benedict ‘99, vice president of PDA. The two started PDA when they were laid off from their prior positions following 9/11. The company, which provides full-service industrial control systems for the food and beverage, metals, pet food, and wastewater industries, grew quickly and steadily.

In 2015, Snyder and Benedict relocated the business to Knowledge Park’s Merwin Building, where they occupy an 8,500-square-foot suite with office space, technical labs, and a high-bay training center.

PDA’s relationship with Behrend exemplifies the college’s “open-lab” model of learning and discovery, in which business leaders, faculty members, and students engage in research and development as teams.

Chuck Capper, an Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology senior, is one of a trio of students working on building a batch processing unit that will allow engineers at PDA to test their work in advance.

“It’s a $60,000 project that will serve as a training tool,” Capper said.

“We are always working with our clients’ machines and materials and they don’t want to shut a line down so we can test our processes,” Snyder said. “We decided to build a general batch processing unit that will allow us to do testing and training here. We can also bring clients here to train them.”

Snyder said the unit that Capper and his teammates are building will enable the company to “demo the daylights” out of the beer brewing software owned by their parent company, Krones. PDA was acquired by Krones, a German manufacturer of integrated packaging and bottling line systems, in March 2017.

The company expects to remain in Knowledge Park, close to the deep talent pool at Behrend.

“We’ve begun engaging other engineering disciplines in our projects, which allows us to create multi-disciplinary projects that more closely match the majority of real-world work examples that new engineers will encounter,” Snyder said.

While jobs are not a given to those who do internships or projects for PDA, Snyder said they are often offered.

“The nice thing,” he said, “is that, upon graduation, those students are able to hit the ground running.”


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