By Rich Rovito, Industry Reporter, WMEP
To improve small U.S. manufacturers’ supply chain competitiveness and the rates at which they adopt technology, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has awarded nearly $2.5 million in funding for five pilot projects.
The projects will be led by Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) centers and will bring together teams of experts in specific technology and supply chain areas to offer services and deep expertise relating to technology acceleration, transition and commercialization.
“We can help these smaller manufacturers be more competitive in international supply chains by making sure they have the tools they need to take advantage of innovation,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. “Keeping these manufacturers innovative makes them attractive suppliers for U.S.-based manufacturers and those looking to bring their business here.”
Working within specific supply chains to understand their technological needs and trends, the new Manufacturing Technology Acceleration Center (MTAC) teams will identify where manufacturers most need assistance in adopting or adapting technology. The projects will test and demonstrate business models that will allow small manufacturers to access the technology transition and commercialization services they need, and to help them form beneficial partnerships. The projects also will serve as pilots to guide future NIST investment and to develop strategies and approaches for providing similar services across the MEP system.
Among the five MEP centers that will receive about $500,000 each to pilot MTACs is the University of Wisconsin-Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center for the formation of the Great Lakes Manufacturing Technology Acceleration Center. Project partners include the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for us to work together to identify, leverage and commercialize advancements in technologies for small and mid-size manufacturers,” said Tim Wiora, director of consulting services for the WMEP. “We have the opportunity to right size new technologies for the small and mid-size manufacturer and increase efficiencies within their supply chains.”
The effort is “zeroed in on scalability of the technology so that these manufacturers can afford it and see a return on their investment within a year or two,” Wiora said.
The University of Wisconsin-Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center serves more than 3,500 manufacturing enterprises in 33 counties in northern and western Wisconsin. The center, located on the UW-Stout campus in Menomonie was established in 1994 and formed as a partnership between UW-Stout and five technical colleges.
The WMEP is a nonprofit organization that provides expert and accessible services in the areas of growth and innovation, continuous improvement, training, export assistance, supply chain management and profitable sustainability.
The Manufacturing Outreach Center will work in conjunction with the WMEP to indentify manufacturers’ technology needs and assist them in best adapting it to their operations, said Larry Blackledge, director of the center.
“It’s important for manufacturers to stay competitive and to have the best technology,” he said.
Finding the best ways to implement new technology will be crucial, Blackledge added.
He pointed to additive manufacturing, which he said can be “disruptive” for manufacturers because through it “you can make things you were never able to make before.”
“There is a myriad of possibilities and you have to let manufacturers’ imaginations take it from there,” Blackledge said.
The NIST/MTAC efforts align with the administration’s plan to launch a nationwide network of innovation institutes across the country that will develop world-leading manufacturing technologies and capabilities to support U.S. manufacturing sector growth. One goal of the MTAC program is for the centers to efficiently connect researchers, scientists, engineers and U.S. manufacturers and serve as coordination points within key supply chains.
Small and medium-sized manufacturers often lack the expertise and staff that enable larger firms to stay abreast of emerging technologies and processes. This creates a gap between the research being performed by universities, federal labs and other entities and the readiness of many of these manufacturers to adopt both existing and emerging technologies.
MTAC projects work to bridge the gap between available technologies and commercial adoption by manufacturers by helping companies turn those technologies into market opportunities, and by reducing barriers that keep manufacturers from incorporating technology solutions into their processes and products.