by Bob Zaruta, President/CEO, NWIRC

Manufacturers as well as federal, state and local agencies need critical products that are in short supply to ensure our nation’s health and safety as well as our national and economic security. Small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) have been especially challenged with sustaining operations in light of current conditions. There is a widespread struggle to find domestic manufacturing suppliers to meet present needs.* I recently participated in the live-stream viewing of a Senate Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Manufacturing hearing, “Examining the American Manufacturing Industry’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” with testimony from several small manufacturers, who again highlighted these ongoing challenges. Chairman Jerry Moran, U.S. Senator from Kansas, convened the meeting with the purpose of hearing first-hand how manufacturers have responded to needs caused by the pandemic, and also focus on the ways manufacturers have adapted to new demands and related international competition issues. These are familiar stories we have been hearing for months, regarding companies that pivoted to make personal protection equipment (PPE) products they were not producing before. A manufacturer of football training equipment cited the halting of sales due to college and high school sports programs being shut down. They easily started making gowns for a local hospital, but there were challenges…the hospital wanted them fast and they wanted them cheap. They were able to ramp up production pretty quickly, but they couldn’t get close to the price the hospital was paying for their gowns imported from China (that they could no longer get). The company owner stated during his testimony that, “We’re not looking for a hand-out. What we want, to use a football term, is a level playing field so we can compete with China.” Tiffany Stovall, CEO of Kansas Manufacturing Solutions (a Manufacturing Extension Partnership center like NWIRC), also provided testimony at the hearing. As part of the MEP National Network, she spoke of assistance their center provides to manufacturers across Kansas, mirroring many of the ways NWIRC has provided support to companies in our region. She spoke of the supply chain issues that have been heightened because of the pandemic and gave examples, such as how they helped match a company making hand sanitizer with a regional bottle manufacturer versus buying overseas. NWIRC has also been involved with similar conversations over the last several months.

Listening to this Subcommittee hearing, and reflecting on the challenges we’ve heard from companies participating in the COVID-19 Recovery Program, reinforced for me the importance of an available resource. It’s the MEP National Network’s Supplier Scouting program. With Centers like ours, who work with manufacturers across the entire country, we are able to match manufacturers that have relevant production capabilities and capacities with other manufacturers – enabling them to fulfill current market needs. This assistance is applied on a national, regional, and local scale. By leveraging a communications tool that is monitored by all MEP Centers, we can match companies that have specific product or capability needs. Our staff of business advisors monitor this activity should there be an opportunity to refer one of our regional companies, and we also have the ability to post information about our local manufacturers needs. We can support your vendor, materials, or technical search by identifying technical and process capabilities, and production capacities. Supplier scouting is just another way NWIRC can help manufacturing grow in northwestern PA.