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U.S. Manufacturing to the MEP National Network: Don’t Let Up!

Logistics and transportation of Container Cargo ship and Cargo plane with working crane bridge in shipyard at sunset, logistic import export and transport industry background
Credit: iStock/thitivong

The COVID-19 pandemic has asked much of manufacturing executives. They’ve had to make decisions about staffing and operations in the face of tremendous health and economic uncertainty — and then adjust or even change decisions based on a myriad of shifting and evolving factors. They’ve had to retool to produce new items for a new market to generate needed revenue while helping address an urgent demand for personal protective equipment, or PPE. They’ve had to master new skills and new tools to communicate with workers and customers and foster community in a period of necessary isolation. Oh, and they’ve had to do all of these at the same time and very quickly!

It’s been a heavy lift, as manufacturing executives taking part in a Sept. 30, 2020, virtual conversation on the near-term and longer-term impacts of the twin public health and economic crises made clear. The discussion was one in a series of 11 listening sessions hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP) called the “National Conversation with Manufacturers.”

The manufacturing executives praised their state MEP Centers, part of the MEP National NetworkTM, for their quick and nimble responses in an environment of uncertainty and changing directives. The Centers became trusted resources for information on the pandemic and related safety protocols, advocates for keeping manufacturers open as businesses were being forced to shut down, and critical clearinghouses for details on available federal and state relief funding. The MEP Centers became crisis management partners, providing templates for required training and developing back-to-work guides for businesses.

The manufacturers sent a clear message to the Network: Don’t let up now. It may take years for manufacturers to fully recover from the current crisis. The Network’s expertise and broad reach can help drive the understanding of manufacturing best practices — from training to lean production to technology adoption and integration — that will help drive recovery. The Network should seize on its heightened brand awareness to champion innovation and efficiency.

Seize Opportunities

Not wanting to waste a crisis, the manufacturing executives detailed their own steps to seize opportunities, whether purchasing discounted equipment, internalizing process, addressing supply chain weaknesses or acquiring troubled competitors.

Despite engaging in different activities and serving a range of industries, from aerospace and medical to food, fashion and energy, the manufacturing executives revealed commonalities central to their ability to weather the current crisis:

  1. Sound cash management is key. Prior to the pandemic, three of the panelists had focused on improving their cash reserves, a move that proved prescient.
  2. All four panelists credited their enterprise resource planning, or ERP, system as providing the internal insights they needed to navigate through crisis.   
  3. Supply chain weaknesses may pose unappreciated risks to otherwise healthy operations.
  4. Lean principles remain important but must be balanced against sustainable operations.
  5. The factory floor isn’t the only focus for lean practices. One panelist described engaging his MEP Center to help “lean” out a front-office process that was impeding production efficiency.
  6. Disruptions can yield benefits. “Having to work remotely has made us work a lot smarter,” one manufacturer said. Whether it’s because people are feeling more responsible for the company or simply because there is less interaction between workers due to physical distancing, “When I go to that factory, I see a much more productive facility.”

Recognizing opportunites combined with assistance from their MEP Centers has provided these manufacturers with the necessary tools to be able to navigate difficult times. Neither the MEP National Network or these manufacturers have any plans to stop pushing forward.

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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