The Utah Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) is an alliance of organizations in Utah that directly support manufacturers with a range of services. One of their most powerful offerings is a supply chain database tool called CONNEX™ UTAH, a business-generating marketplace for manufacturers.
The CONNEX™ system was created to:
• Connect manufacturers together,
• Allow manufacturers and their capabilities to be discovered through the system’s search functionality,
• Grow a participating manufacturer’s business.
The database includes two access options: a free statewide database, and a national database that requires a subscription. At both the state level and the national level, you can post or respond to requests for proposals, search for new suppliers, and post or search for information about company capabilities. In addition, companies that want to remain anonymous as they search for new or additional suppliers can utilize MEP staff to post requests and coordinate meetings with potential candidates.
“One Utah aerospace company posted something along the lines of ‘We’re looking for a supplier who has an 80-inch vertical lathe that can turn high-temperature material. The provider needs to be AS9100- and ITAR-certified.’ Very granular stuff,” says Stephen Reed, program director of Utah State University’s (USU) Manufacturing Extension Service, a MEP partner. “We quickly identified 26 companies in Utah with those lathes, and out of that group, six had the right certifications. We scheduled a virtual meeting with the aerospace company, and eventually two of those suppliers won business with the company,”
Tulinda Larsen, executive director of the Utah Advanced Materials Manufacturing Initiative (UAMMI), another MEP partner, says: “The exchange function has made it valuable for companies to sign up for CONNEX™. For a large company, it allows them to diversify their supply chain and identify minority- and women-owned suppliers. They can keep the business here in Utah or shop for suppliers at the national level.”
One of the premises of CONNEX™ is self-maintenance. Reed states: “Our listing companies can use unlimited comment fields to list the materials and machines they have, their certifications, and other capabilities. The better the information they put in, the more likely they are to be found when somebody goes searching. So, we remind companies on a regular basis to keep things up to date. If a Utah company shows initiative and hustle, they’ll thrive using CONNEX™.”
CONNEX™ can also help companies glean insights into new trends in the market. “When companies keep an eye on the posts in CONNEX™, they might decide to invest in a certain capability given increased market interest. It can be a tool for R&D in that respect,” says Reed.
CONNEX™ has capabilities of interest to non-manufacturers too. Larsen says: “One new feature is a Workforce Exchange, where companies that provide workforce services can list their services. Another new feature is the Research module that includes all the state’s research institutions. Both modules are ‘one-way mirrors’ where the manufacturers can see the providers’ listings but not the other way around. For example, a manufacturer can search for the latest research on a new material, and reach out to any university contacts with relevant expertise. It could lead to some license agreements, so we think CONNEX™ is of interest to technology commercialization offices at our higher education institutions.”
“CONNEX™ Utah has been around in one way or another since 2004,” says Reed. The system went through several iterations and name changes, and it inspired a country-wide attempt spearheaded by the National Manufacturers Association in 2016. However, that national system did not initially achieve scale, according to Reed.
In 2019, UAMMI received Small Business Administration funding to expand the scope of the Utah database. “We contracted with LSI to identify advanced manufacturing companies in Utah for inclusion in CONNEX™ UTAH,” says Larsen. “We rolled that database out in September 2019 at the CAMX industry trade show, and it caught attention from other states.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, CONNEX™ UTAH received another boost when Utah State University secured $1 million in CARES Act funding to accelerate the manufacturing and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“UAMMI, MEP, and USU realized that CONNEX™ would be a great tool for identifying all PPE manufacturers in the state. The CARES funding allows us to offer the Utah instance of the database free of charge to Utah manufacturers, and the database scaled up as a result,” Larsen says.
As part of the COVID-19 project, USU pulled three datasets: the National Association of Manufacturers, Dunn & Bradstreet, and the state’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership historical list of client companies. USU merged and normalized the data and verified tax records to see which companies were still in business.
Next, USU set up a call center to reach out to manufacturers about the system and to give them access. “Every manufacturer currently operating in Utah can have free access to CONNEX™. They can see the listings of other manufacturers in Utah, and other manufacturers can see them,” Reed states.
About this time, Utah MEP allowed CONNEX™ UTAH to expand to other states. In 2020, Florida requested the opportunity to build out their own version, focused on aerospace and defense.
“Working with I-5, the Utah tech company that built our instance, Florida created their own version of CONNEX™. We started working back and forth on how we might share supplier information between our states. Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Michigan came aboard as well. Ultimately about 15 states got into the act,” Reed says. “At that point, we collectively determined that the best approach was to stop work on the ‘separate’ state instances and create a national database called CONNEX™ MARKETPLACE with individual state sub-databases. The conversion was a success. It’s a Utah product that has now expanded nationally.”
While the state sub-databases are free to the companies in those states, access to the national CONNEX™ MARKETPLACE requires a subscription of $500 a year. The subscription allows any individual company to search the entire national database for new suppliers or to offer services nationwide. “If you get one job using the national database, you’ve more than paid for that subscription,” Reed says.
The organization behind CONNEX™ UTAH, the Utah Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), has deep roots in Utah. Steve Black, MEP Center director, says: “With the emergence of Lean Manufacturing in the late 1990s, and the dominance of foreign companies like Toyota, Congress funded consulting services to help U.S. manufacturers compete globally. That led to the nationwide MEP system. All fifty states have centers.”
There are 4,300 manufacturers across Utah. Utah MEP works with approximately 200 of them each year—providing consulting on workforce development, machining, process improvement, robotics, doing business overseas, and connections to university experts, to name a few areas.
“Utah is so unique,” says Reed. “There’s no other MEP center nationally that has the kind of collaboration that we have here among all the parties involved. People do not have a territorial attitude. Instead they ask, ‘What do you need and how can I help?’”
Over the last three years, Utah MEP has taken a collaborative approach with six organizations that each have a distinct focus:
• Impact Utah
• Utah Advanced Materials Manufacturing Initiative (UAMMI)
• Utah Manufacturers Association (UMA)
• Utah MEP Center at the University of Utah
• Utah State University Manufacturing Extension Service
• World Trade Center Utah
Among all these groups, approximately 35 people in the Utah MEP network are dedicated to supporting manufacturing clients across the state.
Black notes that Utah MEP is one of the best in the county. “We conduct a third-party survey of our client’s sales growth and retained sales. Our MEP returns about $11 in state taxes for every $1 spent in consulting. This is a very strong growth metric that puts our organization near the top of the national MEP network.”
The Utah Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) offers a significant advantage to Utah manufacturing companies, as well as companies considering an expansion or relocation within Utah. “One of Utah’s biggest industry strengths is the MEP alliance,” says Larsen. “Both existing Utah companies and new companies can plug into our community very easily, between the resources and our regular networking events. It’s a soft but strong asset.”
Vice President of Marketingsadelman@edcutah.org