Utah’s new MEP—the University of Utah—a promising resource for local manufacturers

By Bart Taylor | Sep 19, 2016

The U.S. Department of Commerce channels resources to American manufacturing through NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and its Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) network.

It sounds like layers of government bureaucracy, but the MEP network is actually a diverse public-private mix, collectively pursuing the objective of supporting U.S. manufacturing. Today every state in the union has a single, federally supported Manufacturing Extension partner. Each is different: the national network is a mix of private sector, non-profit, university and local organizations, tailored to the meet the unique makeup of each state. The partners provide services “ranging from process improvement and workforce development to specialized business practices, including supply chain integration, innovation, and technology transfer.”

The feds require that entities occasionally ‘compete’ for the contract with NIST and the funding and support that comes along with it. It’s not an inconsequential amount of money: Utah’s new MEP, the University of Utah’s MEP Center, ‘will receive $16 million in funding over the next five years from both federal and state governments as well as local industry.’

The University of Utah competed to become Utah’s new MEP and in the end will replace Utah Valley University as the NIST partner. In Colorado, California, New Mexico and other centers throughout the West, MEP’s are hybrid organizations with university ties. Some operate for-profit businesses, many selling services to help manufacturers improve operational performance using concepts like Lean Six Sigma.

Yet Bart Raeymaekers and Bruce Gale, engineering faculty and authors of the grant proposal and recipients of the MEP charter, envisioned a different focus. I asked Raeymaekers what compelled the university to compete for the MEP opportunity.

“We noticed that the entire MEP system nationwide has been focused heavily on operational excellence, and realized that the future of manufacturing, and for small and medium sized businesses to compete in the global marketplace, that operational excellence can only bring you so far,” he explained. “You can only shave so much costs from your operation. Ultimately, we believe you have try to grow top line line revenue to compete.

“What we’re really good at in this country is technology and innovation and that's what we’re going to focus on,” he added. “That was the the new paradigm we pitched -- helping companies drive top-line revenue growth while still providing operational excellence to grow profits.”

Utah’s new center will accomplish this by introducing companies to technology and leveraging America’s great R&D advantage, a common theme now emerging nationwide as manufacturing reinvents itself.

“We'll be heavily focused in helping companies focus on implementing advanced manufacturing technologies, help them innovate w their processes and products,” Raeymaekers said, “to go after new markets, help them with business intelligence to do that (data-driven intelligence) and at the same time also provide workforce education, because if you want to implement new technologies, you have to train workforce and management to be able to adopt these new technologies within the company.”

Yet the manufacturing opportunity today is much more than high-tech manufacturing. For one, consumers are driving demand for locally-made products to satisfy new tastes for craft or on-demand products. Today consumers are reshaping the manufacturing landscape as much as technology. It’s not lost on Raeymaekers. I pointed out that Utah boasts a healthy mix of high-and-low-tech manufacturing.

“First of all you’re right. We did an analysis of Utah’s sector and it’s certainly not all high-tech. But our center will be focusing on process and product innovation, advanced technologies, workforce education, and operational excellence, all of which really apply to all different sectors. We can bring the same tool sets and skill we have on staff to serve manufacturers independent of the sector they’re in.”

He also added, insightfully, “Even if you’re making tee-shirts, you can still benefit from data-driven business analytics -- the best markets to pursue or products to launch. We have those tool sets available and want to deploy across the entire manufacturing sector.”

Lastly, Raeymaekers pointed out the Center will also help companies acquire capital and financing, a critical service as manufacturing truly develops from small business upward. “If companies are to innovate that means they need to get funded. We want to link companies with investment sources to provide financing, including subject matter experts at the university to help small business go after technology grants, for example.”

Music to my ears. We’re excited to work with Utah’s new MEP to bring the first Manufacturing Growth & Financing Conference to the state in the spring of 2017.

Also, more on how the Center will arm Utah manufacturers with advanced technologies in the coming weeks. In the interim, contact Bart Raeymaekers at bart.raeymaekers@utah.edu.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.