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Five Manufacturing Observations From Montana

When people think of Montana, they likely think of hunting, fishing or skiing under the ever present Big Sky.  I had the chance to recently present on “Manufacturing in Montana” at a conference in Helena and want to share my top 5 thoughts about the little known, yet significant and innovative manufacturing base that grows there today.

1. Manufacturing makes up 20percent of the state’s basic industry labor income.  The Montana Manufacturing Extension Center’s recent study of manufacturing, supported by the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the Montana Governor’s Office of Economic Development, showed that Montana manufacturers generate $31 billon in output annually of which $1.5 billion is exported outside the US.

2. Many manufacturers in Montana are small and include several emerging industries tied to the state’s research base.  There are over 3,100 manufacturers, including sole proprietorships, with more than 55 percent of the manufacturers having 20 employees or less.  Growing industries are characterized by new industry associations like the Montana Photonics Industry Alliance and Montana Bioscience Alliance.

The diversity of the state’s manufacturing base was reflected by industry speakers at the conference.  They included: manufacturers of metal work platforms used in aerospace and military situations, printed maps, a native American manufacturing firm, a biotech firm, and a company that manufacturers 3D printing equipment.  Their themes included:

3. Innovation is a key strategy.  Each talked about how new products launched their businesses. yet And they attributed their continuing success today to flexibility anda constant focus on creating new products to meet new opportunities. Being a learning company.

4. Exporting is a growth opportunity. Several speakers described their early reaction to exporting as overwhelming for their small company.  Now exporting was considered a pathway for significant sales growth, even though several of these companies are relatively small.

5. Workforce Development is a critical issue.  All presenters spoke about challenges in finding a qualified workforce.  In several cases this led to creating company-specific apprentice-like programs in order to train their future workforce.

I loved seeing the ingenuity of these various small companies and how they’ve leveraged opportunities and tackled challenges facing the industry.  So the next time you think about Montana, imagine a diverse and innovative manufacturing sector along with those rugged mountains and rich natural resources.   And consider whether their tips for success may help your own state’s manufacturers grow their businesses.

About the author

Tab Wilkins

Tab Wilkins is Regional Manager for Strategic Transition and Senior Technology Advisor at NIST MEP, primarily supporting Centers in the western US. Prior to joining NIST, Tab helped establish and run two MEP centers and has a varied background in non-profit management, leadership development and technology-based Economic Development.

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