In sheer numbers, small to medium manufacturers comprise the lion's share of companies making things in this country. Some estimates peg the number at 98 percent.
This class of shop is the backbone of American industry and serves the same role in other industrialized countries. Most large manufacturers rely on medium and small shops as a fundamental component in their base of supply.
The role of smaller manufacturers has been increasing in part because larger companies are sending much of their non-proprietary work out. Smaller shops, because of their size and nimbleness bring flexibility and efficiency to their larger customers. These shops run lean which helps them remain flexible.
A downside to running lean, however, is while a smaller shop is very busy being very busy, it may not have resources available to optimize manufacturing processes and take best advantage of newer technologies. Additionally, the small company has less time to analyze and comply with environmental and health regulations.
Since 1989, a program of the Department of Commerce has been providing smaller businesses with resources that they couldn't afford to staff on their own. It's called the Manufacturing Extension Partnership. MEP has grown from three centers to a national network with field offices in all fifty states.
Some of the problems faced by small manufacturers have been identified by a National Research Council report. They found that smaller manufacturing firms have trouble keeping pace with rapidly changing technology, have difficulty accessing neutral advice, suffer some isolation and carry a proportionally larger regulatory and environmental compliance burden. Finally, the report notes, smaller shops have more trouble getting financing. But you knew all that.
The $95 million question (MEP's budget) is how can MEP help shops with these and other problems? Specifically, MEP is designed to close the accessibility gap for small and medium manufacturing companies by putting information and resources together with companies that need them. The role of MEP seems to be that of a facilitator. The field offices are staffed by engineers. Once a company's specific needs are identified, MEP people put the company in touch with private companies who can help advise or solve the defined problems. MEP does the leg work. It's your tax money. Give them a call at (800) 637-4634.