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Mep Partnerships

Small Manufacturers Think Big about Partnerships During COVID-19

May 29, 2020
How SME's are teaming up with public research universities and MEP centers to boost innovation capacity.

The U.S. manufacturing industry has lost a staggering 5 million jobs and thousands of manufacturing establishments over the past two decades, according to a report from MForesight. Stalled manufacturing productivity growth and overseas competition are two major drivers of the decline.

COVID-19 is likely to make matters worse, but the industry may also experience five years of innovation within the next 18 months as existing and new digital technologies gain traction.

American small- and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) have been especially hit by the productivity lull, and their survival will depend in part on their ability to adopt emerging technologies required to spark a revival in productivity growth. Doing so isn’t just key to their survival; it’s essential to securing U.S. competitiveness as other nations and larger manufacturers adopt these technologies and require their supply chain partners to do the same.

That’s where public research universities, SMMs, and federal Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Centers can partner to help American manufacturers adopt these new technologies.

Promoting economic competitiveness has always been at the core of public universities’ mission. Advances in digitization, the use of smart sensors, robotics, simulation technologies, advanced materials, nanomanufacturing, and additive manufacturing  were all developed and advanced by university professors and students, often in partnership with industry.

The U.S. National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) ’s Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Centers offer additional resources. Inspired by the public land-grant university agriculture extension model, these centers  are public-private partnerships charged with bolstering the competitiveness of SMMs across the U.S. MEP centers provide a variety of technical support services—including linking SMMs to regional assets like the vast expertise housed at the nation’s public universities.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and Innovation Associates are researching the power of university-MEP partnerships to support SMMs with technology adaptation.

In a recent survey of universities and MEPs, we found that:

·        More than three-quarters of university respondents indicated that they help SMMs transition to the use of new technologies.

·         Of the universities indicating that they help SMMs use new technologies, more than half noted that they work with SMMs with fewer than 25 employees, and almost all work with SMMs with fewer than 100 employees.

·         Moreover, almost half also said that they provide support to the SMMs after the transition, including advice, training, startup support, and assistance finding matching or supplemental funds.

MEPs that are hosted by universities can help forge partnerships to support SMMs with tech transition.

Universities host 17 out of the 51 MEP centers, allowing faculty and students to support SMMs with technology transition. Students benefit from real-world experiences in industry, faculty benefit from research partnerships and exposure to real manufacturing problems, and manufacturers benefit from low-cost services to increase their technological capacity.

For example, Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRS), which houses Iowa’s MEP Center, connected its experts to Accumold, a company that makes small plastic parts for a variety of technology and medical devices. The collaboration helped Accumold acquire testing for new parts they were developing for a prototype smart device. University staff leveraged their equipment for testing and examination of the prototypes, speeding the new product’s time to market. The effort led to a $12 million expansion and 200 additional jobs.

Accumold president and CEO Roger Hargens commented on the benefits of the partnership with Iowa State University. “Their willingness to help us in a very fast fashion was really beneficial for us and our customer. They really jumped through hoops for us.”

Even if an MEP is not hosted by a university, it can form reciprocal partnerships with universities to support SMMs with technology.

Virginia Tech’s Center for High Performance Manufacturing (CHPM) has a long-term relationship with Virginia MEP GenEdge. Virginia Tech Industrial and Systems Engineering students complete capstone projects sponsored by GenEdge’s SMM clients, many of which focus on improving the sponsoring firms’ technological capabilities.

For example, a GenEdge client, located in Virginia Beach, has sponsored two teams this year that are working on robotics applications in their manufacturing area.

“We’re pleased to be able to support local manufacturers with technology enhancement while providing our students real-world experiences that help prepare them for future jobs.” said Matt Earnest, director of Virginia Tech's CHPM.

Partnerships like these can also double as a workforce development strategy. “Although not a majority, some of our graduates actually also begin their careers working for the manufacturers who provided the capstone project,” Earnest added. “I'm actually one of those.”

Hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students have supported manufacturers through these capstone projects, and GenEdge has established similar relationships with other universities elsewhere in Virginia.

Another example of this type of partnership is between Pennsylvania State University and the Innovative Manufacturers’ Center, the state’s MEP Center. The MEP Center connected Gilson Snow, a manufacturer of snowboards and skis, with Josh Stapleton, director of Penn State’s Materials Characterization Laboratory to address challenges with an adhesive they were using in an innovative snowboard design.

In an interview, Nick Gilson, CEO of Gilson Snow, praised the partnership. “Josh came out to the shop and had us make different samples, which he then analyzed back in the lab,” Gilson said. “We wanted to understand the science, and Josh helped us do that. We now have a relation with Penn State, and these guys in MCL.”   

University-industry relationships aren’t perfect, but practice makes perfect

University-industry collaborations aren’t always easy to foster. University timelines focus on school semesters, whereas businesses can’t always wait for a new semester to solve a problem.  University success metrics focus on competitive research grants and student graduation, whereas companies focus on sales and revenue. But public and land-grant universities are increasing their flexibility and adjusting their incentives to improve collaborations.

Especially as the pandemic passes, business leaders interested in identifying and implementing productivity-boosting technologies should tap their local MEP and their local research university to form these win-win partnerships.

Shalin R. Jyotishiis assistant director for Economic Development and Community Engagement at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, North America’s oldest presidents-led higher education association. He advances research that help universities and their partners maximize talent and workforce development, innovation ecosystems, and build resilient communities.

Sheila Martin is vice president for Economic Development and Community Engagement at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. She leads and engages with senior university leaders and policy stakeholders on issues relating to talent and workforce development, innovation and entrepreneurship, and social, cultural and community engagement, including directing APLU’s Commission on Economic and Community Engagement (CECE).

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