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A Tradition of Small Business in America

Prior to my current position at the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, I spent a decade working for my family business, a small, metalworking machinery dealer in Southeast Detroit, which started close to 50 years ago in my grandfather's basement. He grew the business "old school" — buying a trailer, hitching it to his car and taking his one product, a cold saw, door-to-door in the industrial districts of Detroit. With his charismatic personality, integrity and salesmanship, he used his networking skills to build the business to what it is today — still small (around 15 employees) and family owned, but representing close to one hundred machinery manufacturers with sales throughout the Midwest.

This is what America's small businesses look like — and my family's business is not only in itself a small business, but primarily sells to small- and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs).

I know first-hand what it's like to work for Bob, the hypothetical ball bearing manufacturer highlighted here. I especially understand the challenges and limitations they experience running their business day-to-day — as well as the passion they feel about what they do and where they came from.

I know that although there are a handful of manufacturers that get the big government awards, or win a particularly-lucrative contract with an automaker or other large manufacturer and can thus afford the latest and greatest technology, most are still using the same tools they always have because history has proven their merit. In my family's case, what worked for one generation should work for the next, they reason. True, my grandfather's company doesn't just truck one cold saw door-to-door anymore — they've upgraded to a larger trailer with three or four different machines available for demos; they have a comprehensive website and hold "open houses" and other types of events, however, the philosophy is the same — make contacts and sell your product.

There is nothing wrong with this, but old tools which may produce similar results of years past, don't historically grow your business. They have a very small reach and depend on being in the right place at the right time, like handshake deals made over beers or a golf tee and finding the one open window in a town of closed doors. In some sense this will always be part of doing business, it's America's legacy, but it's getting harder and harder to sell a product, including yourself, based on old ways, when technology is propelling the rest of the world forward.

The Administration has thankfully taken a new interest in small- and medium-sized manufacturers. They are revamping processes and providing assistance to the SMMs. Some examples include the release of a new SBIR/STTR portal aimed at engaging small businesses, and the Robotics Technology Consortium (administered by the NCMS), which is based on a contract with the Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise that includes guidelines for engaging SMM. There have also been various government RFPs centered on Regional Clusters, such as the Energy Regional Innovation Cluster or E-RIC announced in February of this year, which explicitly partners with the Small Business Association and requires workforce training as part of an extensive plan.

SMMs are the heartbeat of our nation with its foundation in manufacturing. America has always built things and has taken pride in doing so. Every business has begun small, and not all aspire to be big! There is a passion and pride that radiates from owners and employees of small businesses. I see it in my father every day and felt it each time I spoke about my job with the family business. Small companies don't need to be big to succeed; they just need the tools to be competitive. They need to be able to bring their passions and innovations to life, and they need assistance to do so; for example: Predictive Innovation Centers providing HPC power and knowledge; government liaisons specializing in engaging and working with non-traditional companies (those that have not previously done business with the government); more consortiums built around a government contract with support for member partnerships; collaborative projects where risk, cost and knowledge is shared; networking opportunities to replace (or, let's be frank, in addition to) beers and golf tees. In short, these types of initiatives will give SMMs access to the tools, knowledge and infrastructure they need in order make things, create jobs and restore our economy.

Because as we like to say here at NCMS, the future is not made, it is manufactured.

And as for my family's business, I know they'd love to take advantage of any tools that would grow the business, and maybe someday soon they'll benefit from one of these public-private partnerships.

Posted by Alissa C. Roath - August 17, 2011 @ 1:24 PM, Pacific Daylight Time

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