This is not to say America's SMEs are not innovating; quite the opposite.

Brooklyn-based MakerBot, the leader in consumer 3-D printing, was launched in 2009 with seed funding of just $75,000.

SmartThings, founded in 2012, has been a major player in the so-called "Internet of Things" market.

And Anki, a San Francisco-based startup, was heralded as a pioneer in consumer robotics by Apple CEO Tim Cook during the keynote of the 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference.  

"Some of our most innovative ideas have emanated from small- and medium-sized firms," said Rebecca Bagley, President and CEO of NorTech, a Northeast Ohio-based organization focused on expanding economic opportunity through innovation. "The problem is that the vast majority of SMEs do not have access to the latest technological trends."makerbot

Keeping current with the latest trends often requires large capital investment and strategic commitment, both of which are difficult sells for SMEs.  

So the question: How do we bring these latest technologies to more of our manufacturing SMEs? A recent bipartisan commission co-chaired by Governors Haley Barbour and Evan Bayh offers a solution.

In a report released last month, the Milstein Commission on New Manufacturing, organized by the University of Virginia's Miller Center, proposed a "Big Trends-Small Firms" initiative to confront this challenge.

The idea is to have the Commerce Department's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) track the latest technology trends, then diffuse these technologies back to the manufacturing base.

"If we can somehow equip these firms with the means to leverage the newest technologies, it could have a transformative impact on American manufacturing," says NorTech's Bagley.  

Some have argued that the German system – anchored by its famed Fraunhofer Society (a network of 67 research institutes devoted to applied science), as well as a robust apprenticeship model – cannot be replicated.

But America's other global competitors are not standing idly by.

Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute and Canada's Industrial Research Assistance Program have built effective models for expanding the innovative capacity of their own SMEs.

This initiative will not return us to a golden era of American manufacturing. But it is an achievable, bipartisan measure that would keep our manufacturing base trending in the right direction.

Our global competitors have confronted this challenge. It's time for us to do the same.


Jeffrey L. Chidester is Director of Policy Programs at the University of Virginia's Miller Center.