Montana State University

Manufacturing resource receives recognition

November 6, 2003 -- Carol Schmidt

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The NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) recently received recognition as one of the 100 Best Resources for Small Business in BizBest 100's annual listing. The Montana Manufacturing Extension Center (MMEC), a statewide outreach and technical assistance center in the Montana State University College of Engineering, is an MEP affiliate, one of 60 nationwide. The Montana center regularly achieves some of the highest ratings for customer satisfaction in annual MEP client surveys.

Selection to the prestigious BizBest 100 by its editorial review board is considered recognition of "star performance" toward helping companies become more successful. BizBest's 100 Best Resources breaks services into 12 categories, including Management and Training, Technology/Internet, Sales and Marketing, and Operations. MEP is listed on page 44 of the book in the Operations category.

"MEP is a potential gold mine for small manufacturers," according to the listing in BizBest. "The sole purpose of this national network of 400 not-for-profit centers is to help small manufacturing firms become more productive, tech-savvy and competitive. BizBest has tracked this program for nearly 10 years and has found it to be well run and highly beneficial for biz owners who've used it. You can tap MEP's army of experts for help in many areas, from improving plant layout to getting your shop floor in shape to restructuring your finances, designing a Web site or entering e-commerce. The cost is a fraction of what you'd pay private consultants. MEP centers, serving all 50 states, make it possible for even the smallest firms to tap top-level manufacturing and business specialists with experience in manufacturing. If you are in manufacturing, don't miss this great resource."

BizBest is an independent organization that gathers, rates, and analyzes thousands of potential resources in hundreds of subject areas vital to operating a small business, from accounting software, business plans and computers, to venture capital, web services, zoning, and everything in between. It does not accept advertising, sponsorships, or paid listings. The 100 Best Resources as well as a larger resource reference guide are published annually.

The MEP mission of helping small manufacturers become more competitive also recently received important reaffirmation by an independent review panel at the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), which concluded that the Commerce Department's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) serves a critical need and fills a unique position as a provider of assistance to small manufacturers.

To support its findings, the NAPA Center for Improving Government Performance released the report, "Re-examining the Core Premise of the MEP Program," summarizing the research of the independent panel review. The report includes two major findings: (1) "Barriers to productivity and performance improvement continue to challenge small manufacturers. " (2) "The small manufacturing market is underserved in terms of assistance with productivity and performance improvement efforts." The MEP program was founded to help address these conditions.

MMEC clients are quick to acknowledge the importance of having MEP resources available.

"In a rural state like Montana, the services of the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center are very valuable to manufacturers. Here, we don't have other support options," confirms Walter Wunsch, president of SPECTEC/TIC of Emigrant, Mont. The company sought MMEC assistance to implement Lean Manufacturing in an expanded facility that opened in 2002. SPECTEC manufactures magnetic, RF, and hall sensors used in many devices including some used in national defense platforms like the Bradley military vehicle and in NASA space lab instrumentation.

"We're a long way from what we need," said Chuck Knighton, president of Wavelength Electronics in Bozeman. "We face a shortage of qualified people for positions and for knowing what industry needs. MMEC is the common link." His company received help implementing a quality system for better design control and improved customer communications and service.

A composite seal manufacturer in Billings remarked, "It's enlightening...That Montana has this interest in manufacturers, not just farmers and ranchers."

The BizBest and NAPA reports come at a critical time for the MEP program. The national administration has proposed cutting MEP funds nationwide to less than $13 million in FY 2004, which would eliminate federal funding for the program in Montana and elsewhere. At the same time, the administration is poised to release a manufacturing initiative with recommendations to revive America's manufacturing sector. Some officials have hinted of a renewed commitment to the MEP program.

With support rallied from each state's Congressional delegation, Congress restored funding for MEP last year to $106 million for FY 2003. Senators Max Baucus and Conrad Burns and Representative Denny Rehberg have again urged appropriation leaders to fully fund MEP in FY 2004, but Congress has yet to determine MEP funding for next year.

"The NAPA panel has documented what we have known all along," said MMEC Director Steve Holland. "Barriers to productivity and performance improvement continue to challenge small manufacturers who are underserved by private consulting services. Yet, small manufacturers are the unsung heroes, quietly and efficiently doing big things for this country. Obviously, Montana's Congressional delegation recognizes this. For instance, small manufacturers in the U.S. produce nearly 60 percent of the most cited patents; they employ 10 million workers, providing more than 68 percent of all manufacturing employment with higher than average wages. And there's a ripple factor throughout the economy in that every $1 million in manufacturing sales involves eight jobs in manufacturing and another six jobs in related sectors. As a percent of labor income from basic industry segments here in Montana, manufacturing contributes the biggest piece of the pie at 22 percent. So, yes, small manufacturing is important to our economy. "

The NAPA panel includes seven members representing industry, private consultants, associations, and public policy professionals with manufacturing industry experience. NAPA has started on the second phase of research exploring alternative business models for operating the MEP program. The second report will be completed in February 2004.

MEP forms a network of 60 centers with 400 locations across the country and Puerto Rico providing technical assistance and business support services to America's small manufacturers. MEP Centers like MMEC are evaluated annually on measurable criteria reported by clients, including job creation and retention, client cost savings and investment in modernization. A study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that MEP clients experience productivity gains more than four times greater than comparable firms.

The NAPA report is available online at www.napawash.org/Pubs/NIST0903.pdf

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Contact: Deborah Nash, Montana Manufacturing Center (406) 994-3812 dnash@coe.montana.edu Web site www.mtmanufacturingcenter.com