A new white paper prepared by the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Board discusses the state of domestic manufacturing and the characteristics of good manufacturers, and plots a course to improve the competitiveness of manufacturing in the United States. The MEP is managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The Manufacturing Extension Partnership Advisory Board (MEPAB) is an external advisory body created to provide guidance and advice on the MEP program from the perspective of industrial extension customers and providers who have a vision of industrial extension with a national scope.

According to Board Chairman Ned Hill, President for Economic Development at Cleveland State University, there have been a number of public policy reviews of U.S. manufacturing, each with a particular point of view, and nearly all advocating a narrowly defined “silver bullet” policy intervention. The MEPAB report finds that there are reasons for concern about the industry’s future, but there are also reasons for optimism.

Resolving the competitive disadvantages that U.S. manufacturers face is similarly nuanced. Although many observers have pointed to innovation as the key characteristic of successful companies, the report finds that innovation alone is not enough. To be meaningful, innovation must result in new products, new production processes, or new management practices. Manufacturers also need to be green, care about their workforce and develop their in-house talent, and find their niche in the global marketplace.

U.S. manufacturers also are at a disadvantage because of the lack of a national manufacturing policy, according to Hill. What policies the U.S. does have were created ad hoc to deal with specific emergency situations, he says. Other reports have placed the burden of developing a national manufacturing strategy solely on the federal government. The MEPAB report suggests that manufacturers, the government and academia should all be involved in developing national manufacturing policies as well as providing a supporting implementation infrastructure for U.S. manufacturing.

Among the suggestions that the Board makes regarding the possible shape such a national policy might take includes developing metrics to measure the return on investments in R&D and federal laboratories. The group also recommends rewarding those institutions that actively seek out opportunities for translating and transferring the products of their research into commercial technologies.

To download the MEP report, “Innovation and Product Development in the 21st Century,” go to www.nist.gov/mep/upload/MEP_advisory_report_4_24l.pdf.