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A Push for Making from NIST-MEP

This post originally appeared on the Urban Manufacturing Alliance Blog. Below is an interview with Mark Troppe and Heidi Sheppard of NIST-MEP.

What is the National Institute of Standards and Technology Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST-MEP), and what does it do?

The Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) is a program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). MEP is committed to strengthening U.S. manufacturing through its services and partnerships in every state.

MEP’s strategic objective is to create value for all manufacturers, with a particular focus on small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs). Because of its direct contact with manufacturers, stakeholders, and in-house expertise, MEP serves as a bridge between organizations that share a passion for enhancing the manufacturing community.

Through its collaborations at the federal, state, and local level, MEP puts manufacturers in position to develop new products and customers, expand into global markets, adopt new technology, and reshore production. Over the past 27 years, MEP has had a profound impact on the growth of well-paying jobs, the development of dynamic manufacturing communities, and the enhancement of American innovation and global competitiveness.

And what are your roles at MEP?

Mark Troppe: I am the Manager of the Strategic Partnerships Team. Our team is responsible for developing and nurturing MEP’s relationships with other federal agencies, governors and state agencies, industry trade associations, and other partners. We are the partnerships and program development part of the office. We work with our network of MEP centers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico to build partnerships at the national level, and to help with programming at the state level. We also educate manufacturers about how they might apply the expertise of the centers to help advance things that are of mutual interest and benefit.

Heidi Sheppard: I work with Mark on the Partnership team, as the lead for the Advanced Manufacturing Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge grant, the Investing in Manufacturing Community Partnerships and the Interagency Network for Enterprise Assistance Providers (INEAP). INEAP is a network of federal agencies, which meets monthly to form partnerships around programs that assist small businesses. I’m also currently the point person for a potential MEP Maker Movement program.

Can you tell us about that?

Sheppard: We are exploring the development of a program as part of the Obama administration’s support of the Maker Movement. We are working with our MEP centers to see how NIST-MEP can support early-stage companies and folks in the maker movement who want to scale up into more established manufacturers.

Earlier this summer the Office Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) at the White House and the National Economic Council (NEC) put out a list of commitments in support of the President’s “Nation of Makers” Initiative. The Director of MEP, Carroll Thomas, declared similar commitments at this year’s “Week of Making,” specifically around offering expertise and services to, and interacting with, maker movement facilities to assist their clients who are in the process of scaling up.

Troppe: To give some context, the typical MEP center client is between 25 and 250 employees – this is obviously a very different target audience than what Heidi is talking about with individual makers. Each of our MEP centers has employees with hands-on expertise from the manufacturing sector. We want to leverage that knowledge for this population (makers) with whom we have never worked. To look at a specific scenario, let’s say we have a maker, who is very creative and working on a small scale, but dreams of increasing their production. We want to be there from the beginning to help them make decisions around production, early on – from raw materials and suppliers, to design and distribution – so that in the future, when they get to a point where they’re ready to grow, they can be successful.

Sheppard: This project is in the very nascent stages – we announced our commitment just weeks ago, so we are still determining the best way to engage makers. We’re seeking partnerships with places like TechShop, fab labs, and other types of incubator spaces to do so.

Troppe: At the same time, we’re working with our MEP centers to let them know our expectation that they will work with this new population. Through the centers, we want to increase market penetration, work with more early stage companies, and test new and innovative kinds of services, including workforce development programs. So while it is in the nascent stages, it is an important message that we’ve gotten to our centers.

What have you learned so far from your work?

Sheppard: To start this project, we worked with our NYC MEP center and Etsy, which ran a pilot program together to see how MEP centers could help makers (via Etsy) scale up. One of the findings was that the makers at Etsy didn’t fully understand at-scale manufacturing, or how to get there. Taking these and other results, we’ll be able to provide better, more tailored, services to future makers in our programs.

Troppe: When you put all of these concerns together – understanding fees and taxes, existing technologies, and commercialization, legal requirements, and intellectual property – it can be really overwhelming for a creative person, who’s come up with a good idea and is seeking to scale up and package their product. There are so many issues when you put it all together, and that’s where we want to provide counseling and guidance.

Sheppard: Then on the other side, one of the issues is that there’s a dearth of contract manufacturers that do small runs – you’re either making one as a maker or one million as a manufacturer, but there are only a few that can service those looking to make quantities in between. There’s an opportunity for us to figure out how to solve that problem for these makers.

Can you tell us some success stories of MEP’s working with makers?

Troppe: One of the best examples we have of one of our centers working with existing businesses is California MEP center Manex and the non-profit SFMade. SFMade’s clients are small manufacturers, concentrated in the City of San Francisco – that’s a population that our center wouldn’t easily connect with because they’re a very small segment and expensive to reach. But SFMade identifies its clients and the small manufacturers who have production needs, and connects them to the appropriate MEP center staff who help them scale up. It gives these makers access to a set of services that are typically not available to them.

(UMA hosted a webinar between SFMade and Manex, describing the evolution of their partnership. Listen to and see it here.)

Sheppard: Another example is Arkansas Manufacturing Solutions (the MEP in Arkansas). They have been working with an incubator in Little Rock to define their relationship, and similarly, help identify makers and small manufacturers who have products and need manufacturing advice in order to scale up.

What do you see as your end goal with this program? What are you most excited about?

Sheppard: I’d like to see a Design for Manufacturability codified program for the Makers that is offered by MEP centers. Where, rather than providing ad hoc programming through the MEP, each center would have a program in place and be able to deliver services to Makers. I would also like to formulate stronger partnerships with TechShop and incubators on a larger scale. That’s just my idea, I don’t know if anyone will go for it!

Troppe: I’m excited to see what our centers put into practice, and to what extent they’re replicating the kinds of models we talked about in San Francisco or Arkansas. We’ll see what kinds of services they’re providing, which programs resonate and gain traction, and if those affect manufacturers’ bottom lines by creating jobs. To the extent that that’s the case, we’ll want to include those successful programs as a more formal part of our program with the MEP centers.

About the author

Katy Stanton

Program and Membership Coordinator | Urban Manufacturing Alliance

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