Bob Weinstein is president of the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center (IMEC) and Roy Knoedler is director of the Central Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center (CIMEC), IMEC’s central regional center.

IMEC is a not-for-profit corporation established in 1996 to improve the productivity and competitiveness of small and mid-sized manufacturing establishments. IMEC is part of a national system of extension centers that provide affordable assistance to smaller manufacturers.

It’s headquartered in Peoria and delivers services through three regional centers – at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Bradley University, and Southern Illinois University. In addition, IMEC’s regional centers have thirteen field offices throughout Illinois.

Weinstein holds a master’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas-Austin. He’s lived in Peoria since 1980 and has help numerous leadership positions at Bradley University, most recently service as the associate provost and dean of the graduate school. In that role, he was responsible for establishing Bradley’s Small Business Development Center, International Trade Center, Technology Commercialization Center, and Business Technology Incubator.

He has extensive educational background in urban and regional economic development and has been an economic consultant for numerous utilities and private sector organizations.

Weinstein was named president of IMEC in March 1997. He serves on the board of directors of the Economic Development Council for the Peoria Area and the national Modernization Forum.

He’s married and has two children.

Knoedler was originally from Baltimore. He has a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. He was formerly a vice president of product development for Mattel, Inc., where he was responsible for product engineering and project administration of Disney Entertainment properties and other product lines. Previously, he directed the design and engineering of a broad range of consumer products for domestic and international markets, and was an independent consultant. His experience includes intellectual property rights, and product liability and safety.

Knoedler has been director of IMEC’s Central Regional Center since April 1997. He’s married and has two children.

What’s the mission of your organization?

Weinstein: The Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center (IMEC) was created to help smaller manufacturers in Illinois modernize their operations through access to technology and best manufacturing practices. We provide small manufacturers with affordable access to resources to help them increase productivity and compete globally. Our expert services lead to the retention of employment, creation of new jobs, and expansion of sales to existing and new markets.

How do you define “small” manufacturer?

Weinstein: A smaller manufacturer is defined as having 500 or fewer employees at a single site. Because over 80 percent of companies in Illinois have fewer than 50 employees, we do a lot of projects for companies in that size range.

How did IMEC get started?

Weinstein: With the decline in manufacturing in Illinois and throughout the United States during the last decade, Peoria and many other communities have focused their economic development efforts on diversification. While diversification has resulted in great benefits to our economy, we can’t lose sight of the importance of manufacturing to our state’s economic well-being.

Employment in large manufacturing companies has declined, but it is growing rapidly among small and mid-sized companies. Manufacturing jobs continue to be the primary head-of-household income source in Illinois.

Because smaller manufacturers often do not have access to information about new production techniques and best business practices, IMEC was established to help them improve their productivity and competitiveness.

It’s not a new concept, because manufacturing extension centers have been in Illinois for the last ten years.

IMEC could not have been started without the help and long term commitment of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, Illinois Board of Higher Education, and support from numerous higher education institutions.

In addition, in IMEC’s central region, field offices are supported by Illinois Central College, Illinois State University, Illinois Valley Community College, University of Illinois, John Wood Community College, Kankakee Community College, Richland Community College, Western Illinois University, and a joint office supported by Lakeland Community College and Eastern Illinois University. Bradley University, the location of IMEC’s headquarters office, has been exceptionally supportive throughout IMEC’s development.

Describe your organizational structure.

Weinstein: IMEC is a private, not-for-profit corporation that is led by a fifteen member board of directors comprised entirely of the owners and managers of manufacturing companies.

IMEC is responsible for working with smaller manufacturers in Illinois outside the Chicago metropolitan area (which is served by the Chicago Manufacturing Center). IMEC has three regional centers – at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Bradley University and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, and thirteen offices statewide. We have carefully placed out field offices so we can be close to major concentrations of small manufacturers. More than 90 percent of the smaller manufacturers in our service area are within an hour of one of our locations. Our strength and success stem from the fact that we learned from prior attempts to organize a statewide manufacturing extension center.

IMEC headquarters is responsible for ensuring that its regional centers and field offices deliver consistently high quality services in a timely and cost-effective manner. The development of our structure as a single organization – with consistent operating procedures, quality controls systems, and dedicated full-time manufacturing expertise – was a primary reason we received federal funding. A grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology-Manufacturing Extension Partnership helped create IMEC and integrate three regional manufacturing extension centers into a single organization, which substantially expanded the resources available to manufacturers.

IMEC’s 35 project managers and technical specialists average over thirteen years of experience working in manufacturing companies in nearly every industry sector. Some have been CEOs of their own manufacturing companies. In addition, IMEC’s staff has extensive formal education and training in engineering, technology, and business management.

How have your previous positions helped you successfully manage your organizations?

Knoedler: My experience in project development and managing multiple projects has prepared me to direct staff with multiple projects. In addition, my background in different materials and processes, including family-owned small businesses, gives me a good understanding and empathy for small companies. I have also managed teams of engineers for many years.

Weinstein: I was responsible for developing Bradley University’s business assistance programs, including the Small Business Development Center, International Trade Center, Technology Commercialization Center, and Business Technology Incubator. In previous capacities, I was responsible for oversight of these and other outreach/public service units, a structure similar in many ways to IMEC.

I had experience in development and financial management of federal and state supported assistance programs, as well as development of client-based support for technical assistance services. All of these activities are directly comparable to activities I’m responsible for under IMEC.

Can you give us more specifics about the Central Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center (CIMEC)? Do you have in-house labs or equipment to analyze manufacturing problems? How many employees?

Knoedler: CIMEC resources include not only specialized engineering work stations and technical expertise of thirteen project managers and technical specialists, but also extensive resources available through CIMEC’s host institution (Bradley University) and hosts for all its field offices.

Additional CIMEC resources include over 100 consultants with experience in providing technical assistance addressing manufacturing engineering, manufacturing technology, industrial technology, electrical and mechanical engineering, business management, marketing, accounting, and other manufacturing needs. Many of these consultants are associated with private companies that are part of CIMEC’s qualified supplier database. Many are also full-time or adjunct faculty of the cooperating institutions.

To help address central Illinois training needs, the center and partner institutions offer extensive courses, workshops, and seminars each year. In addition, this regional center has extensive facilities and equipment for demonstration, training, and applied manufacturing research support, including CIM, CAD, robotics, materials testing, extrusion molding, and many others.

Finally, affiliated centers serving central Illinois smaller manufacturers linked to CIMEC include Bradley’s Technology and SBIR Assistance Center, Rapid Prototyping Laboratories, and a U.S. Department of Energy-funded Energy Analysis and Diagnostic Center, as well as comprehensive small business and international trade assistance centers.

IMEC is part of a national system of extension centers. How do these centers work together?

Weinstein: Our center is affiliated with the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), part of the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). There are extension centers in all 50 states. Being part of this national network allows us to meet the specific needs of our area’s smaller manufacturers, while leveraging national resources that previously had not been available to us.

Those include resources at other manufacturing extension centers, NIST supported specialty centers (covering numerous areas of advanced manufacturing technology), and shared information on best practices and problem-solving techniques used by other manufacturing extension centers.

If we’re working with a company that has a complex operating challenge, we can reach across the country to find solutions. This is a tremendous asset for smaller manufacturers. We can bring world class services right to the shop floor.

In addition, IMEC, like other centers in the national network, has established strong relationships with private sector and public sector support services in Illinois. Between IMEC and our sister organization in Chicago, hundreds of private sector consulting organizations and experts have been included in our qualified service provider database.

Also, we have working relationships with Illinois national laboratories, university-based manufacturing research centers, community college training programs, trade/employer associations, regional economic development programs, and state agency supported programs including Small Business Development Centers, Procurement Technical Assistance Centers, International Trade Centers, and environmental assistance programs.

When appropriate resources are not available from within Illinois, we can access resources through other manufacturing extension centers throughout the United States.

What are some of the most significant challenges facing smaller manufacturers at this time?

Weinstein: The challenges have been well documented: shortages of skilled labor, outdated equipment, changing technology, overseas competition. Smaller firms that do not keep pace with today’s standards of productivity and quality are at risk. Half of the purchases made by larger manufacturers are from smaller U.S. suppliers, but it’s no secret those companies are looking around the nation and the world for products or parts they once bought from just down the street.

It’s not east for a smaller manufacturer to keep pace with all these changes. Smaller manufacturers, more than perhaps any industry sector, wrestle with complex technology and work force challenges on a daily basis.

Many companies are facing shortages in available workers to satisfy growing market demand. Faced with this challenge, many are looking to improve the productivity of their existing work force to meet customer requirements. This calls for an investment in modernizing their technology and operating systems, as well as an investment in work force training. IMEC works with these companies to identify the best modernization road map to follow, and helps tem implement their improvement strategies.

Knoedler: There has been a major shift in how manufacturing companies are structured. Many of the larger companies have started to outsource production that they previously would have done internally. This has provided opportunities for small companies.

At the same time, though, it has placed pressure on these smaller companies to follow the standards of their major clients. Larger companies want their suppliers to become and integral part of the production process. They might be asked to make just-in-time delivery of parts, use Electronic Data Interchange, or become ISO/QS 9000 certified.

Even smaller companies must be current on the latest technical advances just to stay competitive and keep their customers happy. Anticipating and planning necessary changes is a major challenge for any company.

What is IMEC doing to help central Illinois manufacturers overcome the challenges affecting their productivity and competitiveness?

Knoedler: We provide affordable direct assistance to smaller manufacturers who traditionally lack the internal resources to solve problems or seize opportunities on their own. We become an extension of the manufacturer’s operations – its right arm.

Our staff understands the challenges faced by manufacturers because they have faced many of the same challenges. In our central Illinois regional center we have a team of manufacturing professionals who develop relationships with smaller manufacturers, help them identify problems and opportunities and then implement actions that can improve productivity and performance.

This can involve anything from crafting a plant layout for a company to improving material flow to performing a rapid prototype and test of a new product design. We are focused on providing services that will have a positive impact on a manufacturer’s operations. These impacts can include increases in employment, increased productivity, cost savings and improved profitability.

Why would a company need your type of assistance?

Weinstein: Smaller manufacturers often don’t have sufficient numbers of internal staff people or time to keep up with technology changes and new operating practices while trying to meet daily operational demands. Any time a company has a process problem that is affecting its productivity and output, we work with it to find affordable solutions.

However, we do not limit our assistance to immediate problems. Through our knowledge of best manufacturing practices and state-of-the-market technology options, we help companies develop and implement long-term strategies to ensure their continuing competitiveness.

Describe how you work with a company and give some examples of projects you’ve been involved in.

Knoedler: Our staff has developed relationships with many smaller manufacturers in their respective service territories. Many time manufacturers call our project managers with a problem or opportunity. Often we perform an assessment to analyze the company’s current operations and identify areas for improvement. Resulting projects might be in the areas of quality assurance, business information systems, production process improvements, or computer integrated manufacturing.

One interesting project we recently initiated was to form a network of thirteen local companies to work on a collective solution to their complex software problems. This project will result in nearly $200,000 in savings for these firms. Instead of each company having to separately pay for the solution, they pooled their resources through our center to achieve a solution at far lower cost per company.

Another project involved helping a manufacturer reorganize its warehouse to improve efficiency. We created a computer simulation of the material flow and helped implement some new techniques that are greatly improving the manufacturer’s productivity and saving it money.

How many manufacturing clients has your organization served? Do you ever deal with service industries?

Weinstein: For IMEC as a whole, there are about 9,500 smaller manufacturers in our service area. Thus far, IMEN has worked with about 500 of those companies. We expect to service 360 during fiscal year 1998, in addition to continuing to work with most of our previous clients. By the end of 1999, we project that we’ll have provided services to nearly 1,500 companies.

Knoedler: Companies in the central region represent about 40 percent of IMEC’s overall activity level. Our services are not typically geared to non-manufacturing companies. However, we do often seek the expertise of service companies to provide project assistance to our manufacturing clients.

How do companies find out about your services?

Knoedler: In addition to our own aggressive outreach efforts, NIST-MEP advertises nationally and participated in trade shows throughout the United States including Illinois. Many companies are referred by partner organizations, including state and regional economic development organizations, chambers of commerce, community colleges, universities, etc. They can also call 800/MEP-4MFG or 677-IMEC.

How long do projects last? Do clients put you on a retainer? Or how do they pay?

Knoedler: Project length varies from just a few days to over a year, depending on the type of problem we encounter or the modernization upgrade being implemented.

While our staff can work on a retainer basis, typically, once needed assistance is identified, a specific scope of work and time frame for completion are developed, including total project cost. This cost will include cost to the client company and payment schedule and contributed IMEC support. We then put it all into a contract that spells out exactly what service we’ll be providing and what the client will be paying for.

How is IMEC funded?

Knoedler: A majority of the cost of our assistance is provided by client companies. The client company’s financial commitment in addressing its needs helps ensure that the projects we perform have real value for them. Our experience working with smaller manufacturers has shown that the likelihood of a company implementing one of our project recommendations is substantially increased if the company pays for a majority of the project cost.

However, we are able to bring in outside financial resources to help reduce project costs. In some cases, we can help the company apply for state grant funds available to partially support improvements.

In addition, many private sector and higher education organizations that work with IMEC have offered reduced fees for their services.

Finally, because IMEC’s administrative and marketing costs are covered by support from state and federal agencies, the cost of utilizing our staff manufacturing experts is very affordable for smaller manufacturers.

How does your center work with private sector consultants?

Weinstein: We have a database of hundreds of organizations and private consultants who can provide service to manufacturers to solve a wide variety of problems. Smaller manufacturing firms often do not have access to private sector resources or lack the internal staff and time to find the right resources and manage improvement projects.

Because the average value of a small manufacturer’s consulting needs are in the range of $3,000 to $8,000, the marketing cost alone can make it uneconomical for many private sector technical consultants to pursue work with smaller companies.

We not only serve smaller manufacturers by directly contributing our own expertise to help define and solve problems, but we help private sector and public sector assistance providers by identifying and defining project opportunities for them.

In doing so, IMEC and other centers throughout the United States have substantially increased the number of technical assistance projects being performed, improving the performance of smaller manufacturers and expanding the overall market for modernization and consulting expertise.

Knoedler: Most of our field staff have extensive background in manufacturing. This expertise, as well as our primary focus on smaller manufacturers, makes us particularly well suited to meet the needs of this sector. Through local and state support we develop long-term relationships with smaller manufacturers, identify their needs, and help them make improvements that will have the greatest impact on their bottom line performance.

For many projects, IMEC has the expertise to directly provide the help that is needed. For others, we solicit bids from private and public sector assistance providers. We assist the manufacturer in reviewing the bids received. Once the manufacturer has decided who will do the work, our staff will manage the project to ensure that services are provided in a timely manner.

What are the results from assistance provided through IMEC?

Weinstein: Evaluating the effectiveness of our services is something we take very seriously. After every project is completed, companies are asked to evaluate not only their satisfaction with the help they received, but also the impacts they have achieved or anticipate receiving.

For projects evaluated during the past two years, companies reported that on average, for every dollar spent by a company on assistance, over $12 of cost savings or increased sales were reported.

In addition, our clients are creating and retaining jobs in Illinois, pumping an additional $30 million worth of manufacturing salaries and wages into the Illinois economy annually.

Evaluation research tells us that our regional centers and field offices are delivering services that influence the profitability and growth of smaller manufacturers.

What other statistics can you share with us regarding the business? Regarding success rates?

Weinstein: After every project, we ask a company to rate our performance. Overall satisfaction with our services has been reported a 4.3 on a 5 point scale.

Companies also tell us the impacts they have achieved based on the projects we have completed. Based on 94 post-project surveys we’ve received, companies report the following:

What changes do you see for IMEC in the coming years?

Weinstein: As part of our long-term plan, we’re working to reduce dependence on federal funding for our operations. By focusing on providing value-added assistance to smaller manufacturers, the proportion of our support from project revenues has grown considerably and is expected to continue to grow. It’s a strategy common to manufacturing extension centers: to become self-sustaining organizations. That’s where we’re headed.

While we’re likely to see our federal funding be reduced to a level that covers only one-third of our operating costs, our relationships with Illinois agencies – Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, Board of Higher Education and our numerous university and community college partners – will continue to grow.

We are projecting to increase our overall level of assistance by 50 percent over the next five years, to an annual operating budget of $9 million. This will enable IMEC’s regional centers to more fully address the diverse needs of Illinois’ smaller manufacturers and build a strong foundation for IMEC to be a long-term resource to improve manufacturing productivity and competitiveness for many years to come. IBI