Breathing Green Life into MEP

Last month, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Phil Angelides, Chairman of Apollo Alliance, along with other business, labor and clean energy leaders introduced the “Investments for Manufacturing Progress and Clean Technology (IMPACT) Act of 2009,” a bill intended to facilitate the development of domestic clean energy manufacturing and production. The purpose of the bill is to give loans and technical assistance to manufacturers to help those, particularly in the automotive industry, retool to manufacture clean energy components. This bill would infuse $1.5B into the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a national network of manufacturing assistance centers that is part of NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) and has focused on assisting small to medium-size manufacturers by providing consulting and training. MEP has been on the front lines of teaching and coaching these SMEs in lean manufacturing principles and practices. This funding would used, according to an article in RenewableEnergyWorld.com, to “help manufacturers access clean energy markets and adopt innovative, energy-efficient manufacturing technologies”.

Interestingly, the Bush Administration tried to kill MEP repeatedly during its tenure. This always puzzled me, as it seemed counter to their stance of helping small business as the engine of the economy. Now, MEP seems as if it could be getting a new life. However, some people question the potential re-purposing of MEP in clean energy manufacturing and not focusing on its  current mission of lean implementation and education.

First, MEP was never supposed to remain in the lean business indefinitely. Having a publicly-funded organization charging market rates and competing against private sector lean consultants is not my idea of competition or a good use of public funds. Second, while some may argue that pursuing green manufacturing is push to the customer instead of pull from the customer (a violation of lean principles), green is indeed part of lean and certainly not at odds with lean. In fact, focusing on manufacturing of green components for clean energy, 70 percent of which are produced outside the U.S., is very compatible with lean manufacturing. In the nineties, I was running New England Suppliers Institute, which delivered some of the first public lean workshops as well as lean training and coaching to manufacturers, before MEP had even thought of lean and was eyeing our business as a good idea to pursue. There was not a big customer demand for lean at the time. However, MEP got into the lean business then because they saw the potential business for themselves and huge benefits to manufacturers. Green manufacturing also has the potential to be very successful.

If this bill passes, time will tell whether the clean and green repurposing of both MEP and manufacturers in the automotive industry will pay off. In my opinion, that’s what public funding is for – for investing in public good and national security in new and promising areas. It’s not just for supporting an already plentiful resource, i.e., lean consultants. Retaining and strengthening the U.S. manufacturing base is a good purpose. However, in our increasingly service-based economy, appreciation for manufacturing as an engine of growth has decreased. Breathing in new, green life may be just what it needs. Manufacturers need to be always looking ahead to the next big thing and not become complacent with what is successful at the moment.

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