Initiatives Offer Manufacturers Aid

January 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — To paraphrase an acclaimed sports-world philosopher, “Predictions are difficult to make, especially when they’re about the future.”

In his inimitable way of turning a phrase, New York Yankees great Yogi Berra is right: Back in 1999 no one predicted that Michigan would lose 300,000 manufacturing jobs from 2000 through 2005.

Still, the prophecies continue, as economists with the University of Michigan projected last fall that another 27,000 jobs in the state’s manufacturing sector would vanish by the end of 2007. Will they be right? Only time and the actions of key individuals involved with the industry will tell.

One of those individuals is Fred Keller. The chairman and CEO of Cascade Engineering, a plastic injection manufacturer that has served the auto and office furniture industries for decades, saw the writing on the wall and decided it was time to diversify. In May, Keller’s company forged a new affiliation with Surge Medical Inc. of Holland called Surge Medical Solutions Inc., which develops and distributes cardiovascular medical devices and accessories to one of the nation’s fasting growing industries, the health care field. The directive to tie this knot came from Keller, who has a history of looking for new opportunities and of developing creative solutions to existing problems.

“We’re also going to be doing some medical accessories that don’t necessarily have to do with cardiovascular surgery,” said Kathy Bolhouse, vice president of the firm’s Industrial Solutions Group.

Vern Ehlers emerged as another one of those key individuals last year. The Republican congressman from Grand Rapids reintroduced legislation designed to help small and mid-sized manufacturers develop new technologies so they can compete better globally.

His bill, which was overwhelmingly approved by the House in September, would give $110 million this fiscal year to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program to offer that assistance and would increase funding by $5 million each year to $120 million in FY08.

“Globalization is rapidly changing the way business is done, and our small and medium-sized firms in particular are at the mercy of this process and the exposure to the increased competition it brings,” said Ehlers.

“For our firms to compete today and in the future, we need more research and development into how to manufacture things better, faster and cheaper. This legislation will increase our capacity to create jobs in the U.S.,” he added.

Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc., has been the metro area’s most tireless worker for manufacturers for longer than most can remember. She has been influential in bringing industry here and in assisting company owners in filling their needs.

Klohs has also been instrumental in forming the United Tooling Coalition, a partnership created through The Right Place, Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center West and the Center for Automotive Research. Funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the coalition’s purpose is to advance and promote this manufacturing segment.

“We see the collaborative business model as a means of securing significant tooling contracts, and building strength within our tooling companies to help head off further jobs losses,” said Michelle Cleveland, who heads The Right Place’s Manufacturers Council.

Then there is Al Frink. Although the assistant secretary of manufacturing with the U.S. Department of Commerce doesn’t reside here, his efforts on behalf of business owners who do have been vigorous.

Frink has been promoting open markets and a level playing field for manufacturers. He has worked toward lowering the cost of production for product makers and has encouraged investment in innovation. Strengthening education, retraining and economic diversification are goals he pursues because he once owned a manufacturing company.

“I believe that the spirit of competition is one of the things that will drive manufacturers as we move forward,” said Frink.

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