R&D Partnership Lends Assistance At The Grass-roots Level

Small and medium-sized manufacturers may not have large R&D funding capabilities, but they are not without resources.

With no research and development capabilities, no computer-aided design (CAD) and no prototyping tools, lighting fixtures firm Accessmount had a product concept but little else.

Industrial Mold and Machine, on the other hand, needed assistance with reverse -engineering a customer's prototype model, which had never been created in a CAD model.

Small and medium-sized manufacturers may not have the R&D internal assets or funding of their larger-size brethren, but they are not without resources as they tackle product development. Among the external resources available is the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a nationwide public-private partnership whose mission is to strengthen the global competitiveness of U.S.-based manufacturing. It is a program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Indeed, both Accessmount and Industrial Mold and Machine received product-development assistance from the MEP system. They worked with Cleveland-based CAMP Services, which delivers MEP services in northern Ohio as a division of MAGNET Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network.

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"They're a remarkable group of people," says Accessmount President Nelson Pitlor. "They have a full team of designers able to tackle anything we had."

Assisting in product development efforts is a growing component of CAMP Services, says William Barnes, MAGNET's vice president of growth and productivity. While traditional engineering services and prototyping have been offered for a long time, over the past four years the organization has expanded its product development offerings to include such things as managing the idea creation process, market research and even competitive landscape analysis. The expanded services simply are a case of "trying to serve the marketplace better," says Wayne Zeman, MAGNET's vice president of innovation.

For some manufacturers, MAGNET operates as an outsourced service provider, while other companies use it as their entire engineering team. For Accessmount, Camp Services coordinated an idea creation kick-off meeting and has continued to provide assistance through the supplier- development process.

In the early days, manufacturers would come to CAMP Services simply to request help with prototyping, at which point some would then go out into the marketplace, only to learn there was no market, or that the product didn't meet market needs, Zeman explains. Since then, "we started to push people [to get CAMP involved earlier] for their own good and our own good. We wanted them to be successful," he says.

There are several caveats for manufacturers looking for product development help from the MEP network: Not all MEP providers are created equal in their offerings -- and deliberately so. Hollings MEP spokesperson Jan Kosko points out that the program is driven by and therefore tailored to its manufacturing customers' needs. Federal funding of the program also fluctuates each year and could impact the types of services provided.

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