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Sometimes It’s Not Easy Being a Small Manufacturer

Confident manager standing by chassis in car plant
Credit: iStock/Morsa Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented big challenges for small manufacturers. That was the message of three leaders from manufacturing companies located in two Southwestern states. Fortunately, the MEP National NetworkTM is here for the small (and medium-sized) manufacturer!

These are views from the twin public health and economic crisis trenches shared by our panel during the Oct. 2, 2020, “National Conversation with Manufacturers” session hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP). This was the 11th and final listening session aimed at capturing the perspectives and experiences of 50 manufacturing executives across the country. The focus of the conversations has been on learning how small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) have fared in the roughly six months since the pandemic began affecting their operations and the larger economy, hearing how company leadership is preparing for success in the long-term, and finding ways for MEP Centers across the country to support that recovery and resurgence.

Big Support for Small Manufacturers

One panelist urged the Network to focus specifically on the big needs of small manufacturers.  “Supporting small manufacturers has probably never been more important than it is now,” she said. She said that while large companies certainly are also impacted by what's happened this year, small manufacturers face the challenge of running a company with a smaller base of resources, technology and support tools. “We desperately need the MEP National Network ... to ensure that there's a focus in the next year on efficiency.” That focus on efficiency, she said, should include the factory floor efficiency, as well as the front office, where many companies struggling to survive the current economic downturn may have been forced to cut staff.

The conversation’s participants represented very small manufacturing companies with fewer than 20 workers. They all recounted a mad scramble over the past six months. First, they had to figure out whether their operations were essential enough to stay open under their state-mandated shutdown orders. Then began the efforts to keep their workers safe, implement cleaning regimens, source protective materials, respond to public health protocols that evolved during the pandemic, determine what emergency support they qualified for, and go through the steps to access funds. All of this was being done with a small staff that needed also to continue getting product out and deal with obstacles to normal operations. Hurdles included delays and disarray in the supply chain, disruption in cash flow, with both account receivable extensions and overnight changes in credit terms, shipping impediments and customers still expecting on-time deliveries.

Reassess and Reimagine

The panelists’ saw the pandemic as a threat to their survival. One has seen that expectation almost play out, with zero sales coming in for her fledgling company’s product for nearly five months. She told of her need to allay workers’ fears that their jobs were in jeopardy as they saw product inventory pile up. “Everything pretty much fell apart for us,” she said. What has kept the company going, she said, is the creativity of her small cadre of workers and sheer tenacity.

The other two panelists were surprised to find that their doom-and-gloom expectations did not come to be. Instead, they have seen strong demand for their products. They have found the past six months a time to seize on opportunities, bring some outsourced activities in-house and learn lessons from the experience. One panelist said the pandemic had forced her to reassess her operation and rethink how she manages, “How can we use this time to make sure that what we're doing is providing the kinds of things that people want but not killing ourselves doing it?”

Throughout the “National Conversation with Manufacturers” series there has been a common thread. Regardless of their location, the products they manufacture or whether the pandemic has provided unforeseen opportunities or brought on insurmountable challenges, the MEP National Network is needed to assist SMMs navigate today and plan for tomorrow.

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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