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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Mintz keys N.C. State push to aid manufacturers

When the two-day NC Manufacturing Conference — MFGCON — begins Thursday morning in Winston-Salem, Phil Mintz will make some opening remarks. Mintz is the director of the NC Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He is also the executive director of N.C. State University’s Industry Expansion Solutions program. I thought if you go to the conference — which is being put on by MEP and Business North Carolina magazine — or even if you don’t, you ought to know some of Mintz’s story, because he has done important work for our state.

Mintz has worked for N.C. State and IES for more than 25 years, since back when it was known as the Industrial Extension Service; the name changed in 2015. His folks help companies solve problems. They are the industrial version of agricultural extension agents.

Mintz grew up in southern Alamance County. In 1978, he left to go to N.C. State, where he earned a bachelor’s in engineering operations. He followed that with a master’s in industrial engineering from N.C. A&T. He spent most of the next decade working for aerospace contractors, like Westinghouse and Lockheed Martin. He started out as an engineer on the factory floor. Then he moved into cost estimating, for things NASA wanted to send into space.

Phil Mintz

“NASA engineers were dreaming up fancy space-based instruments to orbit the earth, collect a lot of data on weather and things like clouds,” recalls Mintz. “My job was to decipher what they were creating and put together an estimate.”

In the late ‘90s, N.C. State needed engineers for new IES field offices.  Mintz came back to North Carolina and joined the Greensboro office. What created this opportunity was a national initiative to rebuild our manufacturing base.

North Carolina’s Industrial Extension Service started up in 1955, part of an effort to transform the state’s economy. North Carolina manufacturing back then was heavily concentrated in textiles, furniture and tobacco. The initiative succeeded somewhat but for decades, these three industries still dominated, until foreign competition began to send hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs overseas and to Mexico. And automation was eliminating jobs.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that would launch what would become a national Manufacturing Extension Partnership program. The goal was to set up in every state what North Carolina had already been doing since 1955, as the first such program in the country.

The practical effect of MEP was to allow existing state programs like IES to extend their reach. In 1995, IES launched North Carolina’s MEP — and the key word was and has been “partnership.” The state’s MEP became a network of partners whose assistance could be enlisted to help companies.

With the MEP funding, “IES was able to expand, and so they began putting offices across the state,” says Mintz, “to try to look more like the ag extension, to have local engineers available to get to any manufacturer within a couple of hours.” There are 10 regional managers now. The IES has about 65 folks in Raleigh and around the state.

When a company reaches out to IES with a problem, a regional manager will typically decide whether he or she can help the company personally, or whether an MEP partner or a trusted vendor can assist.  The IES staff know what resources are available.

That knowledge is often crucial. There is a lot of expertise available from agencies and nonprofits in this state, but often companies don’t know where to go first.

I have written about several companies that IES has helped, such as Aegis Power Systems, which got assistance planning an expansion of its facilities in Murphy, and Core Technology Molding in Greensboro, which got help with training. In fact, I first met Geoff Foster, the CEO of Core Technology, at last year’s MFGCON, when he gave a presentation. You can read about what IES and its MEP partners have done to help companies here, to get some idea of the range of services available.  One of IES’s areas of focus is helping manufacturers compete for military business, and the story of MSI Defense Solutions of Mooresville is an example. Every military conference and event I go to in North Carolina, Michael Mullins, the IES director of defense industry initiatives, is there.

The greatest help can often come from the free assessments that IES will perform. “They know they have a problem,” says Loree Blue, IES marketing and communications director. “They’re not sure what fixes it. If they don’t come in with ‘Oh, I think we need this,’ that’s where we play the greatest role of service. Where we help them assess what their needs actually are. Our main positioning statement is ‘We can help.’”

But companies who engage with IES and its MEP partners have to be committed to the relationship at the top.

“The investment is not just money,” says Mintz. “It’s the time and effort to change your organization.”

“One of our colleagues in a meeting we were in the last couple of days said it well.  He said, ‘We’re here to help the willing.’ We can help the willing. You’ve got to be willing at the top level.”

The future of manufacturing

It’s the age of advanced manufacturing, and the challenges facing companies today are different than in 1955.

Manufacturers are trying to figure out the mix of humans and machines, says Mintz. “That’s what’s a little bit different now, because technology has created kind of a new understanding, a new opportunity for how we make things.”

“What do you offer people when you ask them to come to manufacturing. Are you offering them a career of some kind? What does that career look like?  When I came through, you could be an engineer, and you could go to a factory, and you could get a position. And there’d be lots of things you could do for your career.  So much of that has become automated.”

He was talking recently with a representative of the new Toyota battery plant near Greensboro. “This was the first time I’d spoken with him, and I said, ‘Tell me what kinds of jobs are going to be there?”

The answer was that many of the jobs will involve workers managing and maintaining machines.

“The most front-line workers are going to have to understand how to check machines and make sure they’re lubricated. They’re more like maintenance technicians than actually laborers that have to handle anything,” says Mintz. “The machines are doing a lot of that work, and your job’s going to be to tend the machines in some way that’s specialized.” So there won’t be much of a role for folks who can’t operate a computer or understand technology.

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