– Dr. Allan Fromme
Reflections on MEP at 25 – Collaboration, Cooperation and Partnership
In Part 1, Reflections on the Manufacturing Extension Partnership at 25 looked at how the network of Centers grew from the original 7 to today’s 60. In part 2, it looked at the evolution of the services provided to manufacturers. One of the keys to MEP is the word “Partnership.” It is in our name, it is what we do. We recognize the fact that we can’t accomplish the mission alone. We have to work with others –Federal agencies, state agencies and governments, trade and professional associations, universities, community colleges, local consultants, third parties and an array of others.
In this segment, Reflections will look at some of the work for and with other Federal agencies and other organizations. It also takes a look at the people side of MEP highlighting how the program has tapped into personnel from other agencies and programs to support the mission of MEP and help us gain the knowledge and experience to best serve U.S. manufacturers.
Let’s start with a basic definition:
"Partnership – Arrangement or understanding, in which parties agree to cooperate, collaborate, work together, team up or join forces to advance their mutual interests."
Within the MEP System, there are a myriad of such arrangements and understandings.
Other Agencies Helping MEP
Over the years, the MEP system has done work with the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Commerce (DOC), Defense (DOD), Energy (DOE), Health and Human Services (HHS), Homeland Security (DHS), Labor (DOL), State and Transportation (DOT) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Small Business Administration (SBA).
The biggest financial help the system received came from DOD during the Technology Reinvestment Project (TRP) in 1993-1995. The $250 million for a defense manufacturing extension system allowed the MEP system to expand from the original seven Regional Centers for the Transfer of Manufacturing Technology (MTCs) to 42 by the end of 1995. Additional funding allowed for the development of some common infrastructure and a set of tools, assessments and training for the national network. It also allowed NIST to add staff.
Helping Other Agencies
A significant effort to work more closely with the DOE laboratories also took place about this time. Those labs were (and are) recognized as being exceptional sources of technology, and consistent with MEP’s enabling legislation, should be places that MEP Centers and their clients could go to for those technologies. The challenge then (and now) is that it is difficult, particularly for small- and medium-sized manufacturers, to work with the labs. The principal disconnect between the groups is usually one of communication.
A large company has scientists and engineers who can easily talk to the lab’s scientists and engineers about the technology, has attorneys who can easily talk to the lab’s counsel and technology transfer office, has a finance staff that can easily talk to the lab’s contracts office and so on. Smaller companies more typically have one or a small number of people doing all those things and are not as familiar with all the nuances of working with a lab as a larger company might be.
Developing a streamlined process and underlying cost model to coordinate the connections between MEP and the DOE labs in support of manufacturer’s technology has been challenging. However, that’s not to say that MEP doesn’t collaborate or cooperate with the labs. More recently, the two California MEP Centers came together with Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, as well as several universities, community colleges and local and state agencies to form the California Network for Manufacturing Innovation (CNMI), which is focused on accelerating the adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies in CA companies. For more on CNMI, see earlier blog posts and www.cnmi.biz.
There are other examples of partnerships with DOE including supplier scouting efforts resulting from many of the “Made in America” clauses in legislation associated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In addition, MEP has on-going efforts in supplier scouting for DOD and DOT, and MEP continues to be actively engaged in supporting other agencies in other ways. The MEP System has and will continue to support the Army and DOE, respectively, in deploying the tools and techniques for Model-Based Enterprises (to convert from 2D blueprints to 3D electronic models) and in developing and deploying training and implementation of building energy systems re-tuning for industrial, commercial and government buildings.
In addition these projects, members of the NIST MEP staff support other agencies on advisory boards such as the Food and Drug Administration’s Device Good Manufacturing Practices Advisory Committee and proposal review panels, e.g., for SBIR/STTR programs.
More recently, there’s been a greater recognition of the power of working together. These efforts sometimes take the form of coordination, like the Interagency Network of Enterprise Assistance Providers (INEAP) and Business USA (formerly CommerceConnect); sometimes involve joint field operations, like the Economy, Energy and Environment (E3) effort , the Green Suppliers Network (GSN) and the Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development (WIRED); and sometimes involve joint solicitations, like the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub (EEB Hub), the Advanced Manufacturing Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge (AMJIAC) and Make It in America.
Business USA is an intra-Commerce effort to coordinate the resources of the Department to support small businesses including manufacturers. Specific services include assessing company needs; identifying opportunities for business growth; introducing firms to federal, state, local and nonprofit business assistance programs; leveraging established partner relationships; and helping businesses reach their goals. INEAP is a network of people across agencies whose mission is to assist small businesses working together to coordinate individual agency activities through effective communication and sharing of ideas. The network’s focus is on supporting small- and medium-sized businesses in a variety of areas including sustainability, technology transfer, business management, export, finance, workforce training, innovation, energy efficiency and disaster preparedness.
WIRED, sponsored by DOL, was one of the first programs whose proposal evaluation criteria specifically included credit for including an MEP Center in the proposal. E3, GSN, the EEB Hub and the AMJIAC projects are all multi-agency efforts. E3 involves six Federal agencies (DOC, DOE, DOL, EPA, SBA and USDA) using a common technical assistance framework to help communities, manufacturers, and manufacturing supply chains adapt and thrive in today's green economy. The EEB Hub involves four agencies (DOC-EDA and NIST MEP, DOE and SBA) working together to reduce energy consumption significantly via advanced energy systems retrofits. The project includes applying systems engineering principles to the retrofit process as well as finding, developing and deploying new manufactured products which contribute to the overall energy savings goal.
The People Side
We’ve worked with a lot of people from other agencies and other organizations. Most came under some form of detail and stayed for a relatively short period of time. Others came over and stayed on to become permanent NIST MEP employees. The value of these personnel exchanges can be immense.
MEP gains knowledge, skills, abilities and relationships it needs to carry out its mission, along with better understanding of the sending organization’s mission, culture, resources (and limitations) and ways of doing business. The sending organization gets back someone with a greater breadth of knowledge and understanding about small manufacturers and our part of the federal government. If it’s MEP doing the sending, we get back people with more knowledge of the place they went and a broader perspective on what’s possible and doable. A few examples:
- A regional manager, who came from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and later left to start his own company,
- A detailee from the DOD, who served as an MEP regional manager for the Great Lakes, and went on to the State of Ohio’s Department of Development,
- A detailee from the Electric Power Research Institute, who helped us make the connection to the electric utilities,
- A detailee from USDA with his connection to USDA’s Agricultural Extension Service to help better connect MEP to rural manufacturers and resources, and later made significant contributions to the Y2K efforts.
- A detailee from Georgia Tech and a representative of the American Industrial Extension Alliance to connect MEP more closely to the land grant universities which had manufacturing extension services already, and
- A detailee from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who helped us make the connection to ORNL’s advanced manufacturing activities,
On the flip side, we’ve also sent a lot of MEP people elsewhere. That list includes:
- A former MEP account manager, who’s gone on to run the Baltimore office of the U.S. Export Assistance Centers,
- A former MEP evaluation specialist, who went on to work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and
- A former MEP strategic relationship manager, who’s gone on to be Associate Administrator for the Small Business Administration’s Office of Small Business Development Centers.
- In the earlier years of the program, new MEP hires were required to spend up to a month at a Center to learn what both Centers and manufacturers were all about and supply much needed perspective for NIST on what was possible in the field.
All in all, the work we do for and with others makes for a stronger, more robust MEP System, more capable of meeting the needs of today’s manufacturers.