Enhanced Partnership Opportunities with MEP Centers through the CARES Act

This blog is the first in a series that will highlight opportunities for OEA grantees to sustain and enhance work undertaken in OEA-funded programs by leveraging new programs and funding related to the Covid-19 pandemic response.

Program Description

The MEP National Network™ is a public-private partnership that delivers comprehensive solutions to U.S. manufacturers, fueling growth and advancing U.S. manufacturing. The network is comprised of 51 Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Centers located in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, with more than 1,400 trusted advisors and experts at approximately 375 MEP service locations, providing any U.S. manufacturer with access to resources they need to succeed. Operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US Department of Commerce, the network is focused on helping small and medium-sized manufacturers generate business results and thrive in today’s technology-driven economy.

What the Stimulus (CARES Act) Does

The CARES Act has two important elements regarding MEP that are relevant to OEA grantees. The Act: 1) provides $50 million in grants to be awarded by formula and application to existing MEP Centers for work that will help manufacturers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and 2) enables MEP centers to use these grants without the usually required matching nonfederal funds.

Program Parameters

Successful applications by MEP Centers will allow those MEP centers to help manufacturers recover from workforce and supply chain interruptions; assess the operating needs of manufacturers; scout for manufacturers that can produce critically needed medical equipment and supplies, and organize peer-to-peer manufacturing councils, among other things.[1]

According to the Request for Application (RFA) for MEP Centers published by NIST, this assistance to manufacturers will include:

  1. Services that directly support manufacturers’ ability to respond to the coronavirus through, for example, accelerated production of Personal Protective Equipment, and
  2. Services that support manufacturers’ ability to improve their competitiveness as the marketplace adapts to the coronavirus disruption.

Specifically, MEP Centers are to propose activities to implement services typically offered under the base MEP center agreement, including assessment of small and medium manufacturers, participation in MEP National Network Supplier Scouting, and being a technical resource to help manufacturers recover from workforce and supply chain interruptions.

Discussion and Implications for OEA Grantees

Approximately half of OEA awards made over the last five years involved MEP Centers as partners and/or sub-recipients of the prime awardee. In these projects, MEP Centers have made valuable contributions to deliver impacts for DOD, the warfighter, and the defense industrial base (DIB). This increased funding for MEP Centers along with increased flexibility (because no cost share is required) presents opportunities for OEA grantees to revisit and expand prior and current partnerships with MEP Centers for collaboration on work of mutual interest in several areas explored below.

Supply chain mapping and analysis. Many OEA awardees collected information to identify the location and capabilities of defense suppliers in the state. This provides an opportunity to leverage that information about capabilities for working with MEP Centers to aid ramping up production of personal protective equipment (PPEs) and helping the defense suppliers to diversify to new customers and markets. Moreover, collaboration with MEP Centers could help defense suppliers identify breaks or vulnerabilities in existing supply chains with companies that are struggling or have shut down. Helping companies identify and qualify alternate suppliers that can meet needs in the transition and recovery stages could mitigate the impact on the US defense industrial base. Because DoD has identified a need for PPEs to protect military and civilian DOD personnel, MEP can also help in identifying supply sources and/or help companies pivot to meet this demand.

Diversification. The MEP RFA cites as eligible “…services that support manufacturers’ ability to improve their competitiveness as the marketplace adapts to the coronavirus disruption.” This provides an opportunity for OEA grantees and MEP Centers to collaborate to assess the needs of SMEs in the DIB and identify and address weaknesses so that they can remain important components of the DIB. Addressing those weaknesses builds on earlier OEA grantee work promoting diversification. MEP’s understanding of the changing marketplace as well as its technical knowledge of production processes in multiple industries can be invaluable in helping defense suppliers identify and shift to new products that DoD may need considering the COVID 19 public health crisis.

Workforce and new technologies. The language authorizing grants to be used to assess needs of SMEs provides an opportunity for OEA grantees and MEP Centers to collaborate on assessing workforce needs in the DIB and the workforce challenges they’re facing, especially in light of workers who are retiring, vulnerable, or reluctant to work because of health considerations. This work could engage vendors, educational institutions, and others to help companies identify and address risks and workforce skill needs associated with introducing new technologies or production lines.

Cybersecurity training. Over the last two months, there have been numerous cybersecurity breaches regarding the video conferencing technologies that have become so prevalent. OEA grantees could build on this increased cyber awareness to continue and expand collaboration with MEP Centers to educate SMEs in the DIB about cyber risks and the need for compliance. This is consistent with the authority for MEP Centers to support manufacturers’ ability to improve their competitiveness. As companies employ new techniques for doing business – i.e., new robotics linked to data provided through the internet or new video conferencing software – OEA grantees and MEP have a unique opportunity to help guide defense suppliers in integrating cybersecurity precautions into the initial purchase, thereby improving the ability of those companies to meet DoD security requirements more efficiently.

Next Steps

OEA grantees interested in reinvigorating partnerships with MEP Centers should reach out to MEP Center leadership in their state to discuss potential collaboration opportunities as soon as possible. MEP Centers are preparing applications for the available funding now. It is possible that MEP Center applications will propose activities that have sufficient flexibility to include opportunities for collaboration with OEA grantees after those applications are written. However, building collaborative activities into the MEP application on the front end would be preferable, detailing how they could advance the intent specified in the CARES Act and the NIST RFA from the options outlined above.

[1] April 13, 2020 Press Release from NIST accessed April 20, 2020: https://www.nist.gov/news-events/news/2020/04/nist-mep-centers-receive-cares-act-funding-pandemic-response