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Beth Colbert


Manufacturing: Creating Opportunity Through Innovation

The Northeast Supply Chain Initiative takes on virtual integration

Published: Wednesday, September 27, 2017 - 12:01

When we think of champions of manufacturing today, we tend to think of some of the big companies such as Boeing, Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. But companies don’t form themselves, and patents don’t automatically mean innovation—people do.

Not all companies have inventors. However, all companies can, and probably do, have innovators.

An invention is a product or process that has been created and then documented legally. Many patents are granted, and then nothing is done with them. But innovation is how a patent or idea is put to use. And connecting people with the opportunity to innovate is key.

A computer numerical controlled (CNC) machine operator at a small shop in the United States didn’t invent the CNC machine, but what that talented machinist can do with that invention can be innovative—if the machinist is given the opportunity.

When companies were vertically integrated, from raw material to product sales, opportunity existed throughout the manufacturing process to make adjustments, tweak processes, test new, raw materials, and try new things on the spot and in the moment. With outsourcing, some of those dynamic relationships between all phases of the manufacturing process were lost.

Today, large manufacturers can have thousands of suppliers. While most companies have preferred supplier programs, any relationships for innovation or value co-creation exist, in large part, due to a small number of visionary champions. Most sourcing professionals within large manufacturing corporations simply don’t have time to sift through all the suppliers available to find those who may be able to contribute to growth through innovation. The opportunity for innovation is even harder to find. If necessity is the mother of invention, is it fair to say, opportunity is the catalyst to innovation?

If we identify the champions within manufacturing companies and provide the opportunity to build relationships that mimic those from the vertical integration era, will we have the right ecosystem for innovation? Can virtual integration provide the opportunity for innovation?

Every manufacturer has that machine shop or supplier it goes to when it wants to try something different. The problem is that these opportunities have now become few and far between, relying on individuals who have built relationships over time, the proverbial, “I know a guy....” What if a program could reinvent “I know a guy” thinking and actually create opportunity to build new virtual integration partnerships?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) centers in New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, and Massachusetts are taking on this challenge. The region is bringing together a few large manufacturers’ key sourcing champions and figuring out if they can help build virtual integration partnerships with existing suppliers or with more suppliers to create the opportunity for innovation. Through a program called the Northeast Supply Chain Initiative, these MEP centers are helping suppliers meet and exceed manufacturers’ minimum buying requirements, allowing for the exploration and matching of innovative capabilities. Champions from large manufacturers can meet potential virtual integration partners. The MEP centers are the key to delivering the enhanced “I know a guy” intelligence, essential to innovative breakthroughs.

With this program, the formula for success is creating opportunity: Manufacturers’ champions + vetted supplier matches = opportunity.

And opportunity is the catalyst for innovation.

To learn more about the Northeast Supply Chain Initiative, contact one of the participating MEP centers listed in the states mentioned above.

First published on the Sept. 8, 2017, Manufacturing Innovation blog.


About The Author

Beth Colbert’s picture

Beth Colbert

Beth Colbert is the primary contact for assistance, resources, and sharing for the NIST MEP program partners in 8 states: New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine. Prior to joining the National Program, Beth served as the Center Director for the program in Ohio as part of the Ohio Department of Development for 6 years. Most of her career was spent working as a research and development engineer in manufacturing for Dow Chemical, Owens Corning, and Lafarge North America. In her career, she developed products and processes for manufacturing in the construction materials industry and received several patents.