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After a March (and More) of Madness, What’s Next for Manufacturers?

Business woman using tablet analyzing sales data and drawing growth graph with icon customer network connection on virtual interface
Credit: iStock/ipopba

The six manufacturing executives participating in a Sept. 25, 2020, virtual conversation spent much of the time discussing what comes after the pandemic has subsided.

This session of the “National Conversation with Manufacturers” was the ninth in a series of 11 virtual panels with leaders of small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP). The executives gathered for the discussion represented companies ranging in size from 900 employees to just six. The discussion included the viewpoints of the startup firm and the half-century old establishment, as well as the leadership perspectives of the publicly traded company and the employee-owned firm.

Initial Impacts

Some of the manufacturers we interviewed entered 2020 anticipating a banner year; others had inherited the troubles of the industries they served. The disparate manufacturers shared a March of madness, where they scrounged for information to keep their workers safe, scrambled to rework production lines to allow for physical distancing and wrestled with what one described as the “industrial equivalent of toilet paper hoarding.” One felt the sobering impact of COVID-19 when a couple of workers tested positive for the disease and the entire production line needed to quarantine for two weeks. Another struggled with the effects of generalized fear as a large segment of workers stayed away from work. The panelists described how they cut hours and benefits, and one shared how they had reluctantly cut jobs.

Participants stressed the importance of being transparent with staff and visible in times of crisis. “I just had to make absolutely sure that leadership was on site,” said one manufacturer, who explained that production workers could not be asked to do what managers would not. “Every day, there had to be new and positive and appropriate messaging to the workforce to get everybody through because it was crazy.” They appreciated the precautions workers took, not just at the workplace but at home as well. That commitment helped carry them through the first chaotic weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moving Beyond Crisis Mode

Although concerns about the virus and the accompanying economic downturn continue, the panelists had moved beyond the crisis mode of the early weeks. Some had already seen business bounce back strongly; others were still hoping for a rebound. But all were looking ahead, focused on making investments in people, equipment and management software that would position them to take advantage of opportunities on the other side of the crisis.

Their interest in what’s next for their own operations extended to what’s next for manufacturing as a whole. The MEP National NetworkTM, they said, could be the trusted resource helping shepherd them and other SMMs to the next stage of the economic cycle and their business development. Facilitating mutually beneficial relationships among manufacturers, connecting them to resources, advocating for manufacturers on expensive “compliance-heavy lifts,” such as cybersecurity certification, are some recommendations for advancing to the next stage. Another important need, they agreed, is helping SMMs embrace or withstand the epoch-making changes of Advanced Manufacturing Technology Services (AMTS)/Industry 4.0. As more advanced and digitally connected machines are predicted to continue to reshape the factory floor, manufacturers, particularly SMMs, face threats from both failing to invest in technologies that allow them to remain competitive and also in investing in technologies that do not suit their needs.

“I'm fearful, if not done well, that we will push technologies out to small and medium-sized businesses with this hope that this technology will magically make them better at what they do,” said one participant. “We need to make sure we don't lose focus on good process design and sound, operational and organizational strategies.”

They said that AMTS/Industry 4.0 sounds good out of the box, but wondered if it would work properly in the environment that they put it in. Panelists agreed that such advanced machinery “requires a lot of knowledge and know-how and maintenance and upkeep, especially as technology changes so fast that you can't just set it and forget it.”

In terms of the vision of artificial intelligence, predictive demand planning, robotics running parts of the factory, one participating manufacturing executive asked, “Who is going to have the capital and the team on site to be able to even do that type of work?” Instead, as one panelist suggested, the Network’s insights could be valuable helping SMMs transition toward AMTS/Industry 4.0 in a way that's appropriate for their business.    


The MEP National Network is here to help U.S. manufacturers through these unprecedented times. We’re here to continue our mission to strengthen and empower U.S. manufacturers and our mission is now more important than ever. Connect with your local MEP Center to learn how you can succeed in a changing world.

About the author

Mark Schmit

Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP), since 1988, has been committed to strengthening U.S. manufacturing, continually evolving to meet the changing needs of manufacturers. As division chief for regional and state partnerships, Mark is the lead for division policy and has assisted in the development of programs supporting manufacturing and industrial extension technology-based economic development, and entrepreneurship practices with state elected officials and policy makers, including the MEP policy academies, which were designed by MEP and partners to help states build upon existing strategies, leverage available resources, and spur creative new ideas about how to address major challenges or leverage opportunities around the manufacturing sector.  Mark is responsible for developing partnerships with both the public and private sector entities. He was an MEP co-lead for the creation of MFG Day, an outreach program held on the first Friday in October to show students, parents, and the public what modern manufacturing is all about, with growing annual participation across the United States. Mark was a 2001, 2005, 2014, and 2020 recipient of NIST’s George Uriano Award.  The George Uriano Award recognizes outstanding achievements by NIST staff in building and strengthening NIST extramural programs and partnerships.

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