October 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 5 // Commentary // 5COM2

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Manufacturing Extension: A Role for CES?

This article considers whether the Cooperative Extension System has an interest in assisting rural food and fiber manufacturers and if so, what capacity it can bring that is complementary to the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) manufacturing technology centers.

Theodore J. Maher
Technology Transfer & Industrial Extension
Internet Address: tmaher@reeusda.gov

Michael P. Spencer
Communications, Technology & Distance Education
Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C.
Internet Address: mspencer@reeusda.gov

Extension as an educational mode was hotly debated in many quarters during the late 1800s. In the early part of this century Seaman Knapp, president of Iowa State University and a coalition of other agricultural colleges were instrumental in creating a unique and enduring partnership of cooperative effort among Federal, state, and local governments that came to be known as the Cooperative Extension System (CES).

Over the years, CES has developed a large and faithful following. Representative Vernon J. Ehlers (R-MI), vice chairman of the house committee dealing with Science (and the Department of Commerce) has said (Ehlers, 1996): "One of the best mechanisms that we have experienced in this nation for transfer of knowledge from basic science to the workplace is one that has worked well for over a century, the Cooperative Extension Service at agricultural land-grant universities. Michigan State University, in my state, when they discover something new in the agricultural laboratories, the farmers are using it in the field within a year."

This original orientation to educate agricultural producers has been subject to a number of pressures, most significantly the decline in the number of farms and ranches, and the changing profile of individuals and families whose principal source of income is in production agriculture. Other factors influencing the direction and focus of CES include the changing demographics of "rural" areas, and increasing demand in urban areas for educational services similar to those provided in rural areas.

In 1987 CES reformulated its statement of purpose to stress its role in helping "people improve their lives through an educational process that uses scientific information to address issues and needs" (USDA, 1993). This statement, unbounded as it is by discipline, audience, or geography, leaves open the question of who, primarily, CES should serve. In today's context, some have asked whether state and local Extension services should continue to draw primarily from the research and programs of the colleges of agriculture or, instead, become a conduit for the research and programs of the entire university (NRC, 1995a).

Traditionally, the academic side of CES is usually associated with the college of agriculture at the land-grant university, but more recently there has been movement toward positioning the Director of Extension as a "university wide" resource not tied to any particular academic department (NRC 1996). Iowa State University (Iowa, 1991), for example, has integrated CES into a single university-wide extension organization.

USDA supports CES through base funding (e.g. Smith-Lever funds) and specified programs. 1996 Federal appropriations for Extension activities totaled $428 million. 1997 appropriations are $426 million and estimated 1998 appropriations are $417 (CSREES, 1997).

The Manufacturing Extension Program

Contemporaneously with the origins of CES many public and private universities experimented with programs devoted to systematic and sustained educational services for adult part-time learners Today, university extension is often viewed by its proponents as a "third" function of a university following research and the instruction of on-campus students. There are, of course, many forms of university extension including off-campus courses, evening classes, correspondence courses, demonstration projects, conferences, institutes, and individual consultations.

In 1988 (OMNI, 1998), Congress directed the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to begin helping the nation's smaller manufacturers to adopt and apply performance- improving technologies as demanded by intensifying domestic and global competition in manufacturing. NIST, with cooperating state and local organizations, established a handful of regional Manufacturing Technology Centers (MTCs) that provided a range of hands-on technical assistance to companies. NIST also initiated the State Technology Extension Program (STEP) that provides grants to help states to build their own infrastructure for industrial outreach services. The MTCs and STEP were combined into the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) in 1993. The MEP goal is to establish 100 manufacturing centers nationwide by 1997 to assist small and medium sized manufacturers in modernizing their production capability (EPA).

Manufacturing Technology Centers are non-profit organizations that serve as the focal point for delivering services to smaller manufacturers. These centers are partnerships that typically involve state and federal governments; industry; educational institutions; and other sources of expertise, information and funding support. The center may or may not be formally associated with a specific academic institution. The centers also may assist companies with workforce training, workplace organization, business systems, marketing, or financing issues by working with other federal, state, or local organizations (EPA).

The State Technology Extension Program works with states to develop coordinated manufacturing extension and modernization programs to serve the competitive needs of small and medium-sized businesses.

MEP's Links is a coordinated service, technology, and information infrastructure designed to provide tools and resources that can serve its manufacturing extension efforts nationwide. In addition, Links will bring manufacturing-related information, databases, and sources of technology to extension centers and manufacturing companies.

Federal funding for the Manufacturing Extension partnership was $113 million in 1996 and is estimated to be at $98 million in 1997 and $123 million in 1998 (Budget).

CES/MEP Programs Compared

CES Base Programs, special funds, and the National Initiatives represent CES's commitment to respond to important societal issues of broad national concern. Extension staff are allocated to program areas generally in accordance with local needs. However, the specific assignments are also constrained by the requirements of base programs or special congressionally mandated purposes (NRC, 1995b).

MEP extension centers are designed to help link sources of improved manufacturing technology and the small and mid-sized companies that need it. Broadly, this includes helping manufacturers assess their current technology and business needs, defining avenues for change, and implementing improvements.

Working with other federal, state, or local organizations, many centers also assist companies with quality management (ISO 9000), workforce training, workplace organization, business systems, marketing, or financial issues.

Common Ground in Rural America.

While farming was and remains important as a source of jobs and income in many rural areas and is the largest single user of rural land, it is no longer the dominant rural industry it once was, nor will it likely be again.

In 1990, 58 percent of U.S. farm operator households received wages and salary (averaging nearly $30,000 per reporting household) from off-farm employment. For example, one or more household members might work at a manufacturing plant, telemarketing office, or in retail trade (ERS, 1995a).

Manufacturing is a major provider of both rural jobs and income, providing jobs for nearly 17 percent of the rural workforce and employing more people than farming, agricultural services, forestry, fishing, and mining combined. Manufacturing also provides roughly a quarter of all rural earnings (ERS, 1995b).

A barrier to the competitiveness of rural areas for developing higher skill, higher wage, and higher productivity manufacturing appears to be the effects of rurality: isolation, an absence of economies of scale, and few agglomeration economies. One approach to reducing the costs of rurality would be to connect rural firms and entrepreneurs to nodes of information, innovation, and finance, and to increase their access to growing global markets. An industrial extension program, similar to the one that has helped the agriculture industry, is one model for delivering such support (ERS, 1993).

CES and its Potential for Small and Medium Manufacturing Support.

Given all the players in the university system and other organizations, are there niches for CES to undertake complementary and collaborative outreach programs? There are several "ifs:"

  • If CES is interested in expanding its clientele base to include the post-harvest technology needs of agri-business such as food and fiber processors.
  • If CES is interested in expanding its clientele to include "non-traditional" clients in industry, manufacturing, etc.
  • If CES wants to communicate and collaborate with the engineering school and university-based technology transfer organizations.
  • If CES wants to form coalitions with Federal agencies and Federal laboratories on behalf of the manufacturing community.

CES is on record in support of educational programs that promote economic diversification, rural revitalization, and community development including business (non-agricultural) retention and expansion, and entrepreneurial start-ups (Note 1). Non-farm income is an important issue in many states. CES represents a fully developed outreach mechanism with first-hand knowledge of the private sector, particularly in rural areas. It encompasses knowledge of system behavior, institutional factors both favorable and adverse, and the opportunities for linking research with the technical needs of business.

The Utility of CES to Industrial Extension

Suspended between its past education role in rural and urban America, particularly in agriculture, and its' currently ambiguous status in the industrial extension discussion, CES occupies a position that requires a good deal of self-examination and role definition. CES has demonstrated at least five possible approaches to rural manufacturing assistance.


County, area agents, and state specialists can respond to technical problems of small firms and relay those needs to public and private resources, including universities, federal laboratories, and private consulting firms. This mode is currently being used by the Auburn University CES in cooperation with MEP.

Problem Identification

A generalist or specialist can assist in helping to assess needs and define problems. A current example is Oklahoma State University where specialists from CES, in collaboration with the School of Engineering, are providing technical assistance on a regional basis to the food processing industry.

Information Exchange

In the same way that county agents have provided agriculture - related information to agricultural producers, they could provide technical information to small manufacturing establishments (SME's) generally. Based on needs identified and assembled by county agents or state specialists, Extension could tap into the proliferation of information systems that exists on state and national levels. Opportunities for collaboration abound.

Problem Solving

In this mode, the Extension System could help companies, either individually or in networks, to solve technical problems related to products, production processes, system integration, or management. One possibility is to convert a portion of effort by CES agricultural engineers in support of non-agriculture related SME's.

Support Services

Some institutions provide SME's with direct support services such as training, export assistance, financial management, and strategic planning. A potential support service role for CES is invention evaluation. Collaborative relationships are possible between CES and NIST in support local inventors with technical evaluation, business commercialization plans, and intellectual property management.

Note 1: Urban manufacturers may also be relevant to CES. They are certainly relevant to the general scientific/research community at all large universities. In any event, Food Scientists and Foresters (of the Schools of Agriculture and/or Forestry) are frequently called upon for technical support by urban food and fiber processors.


Budget of the U.S. Government, FY 1997-98, p 287. Available online: http://www.gpo.ucop.edu/search/budget97.html

Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Servicen (1997), Budget and Current Funding Authorizations, Available online: http://www.reeusda.gov/new/budget/webfund.htm (Note : As of May 3,2001 this web page is no longer available)

Ehlers, V.J. (1996). A Scientist in Congress Looks at Science Policy. In A.H. Teich, S.D.Nelson, C. McEnaney, (Eds.), Science and Technology Policy Yearbook (p. 74), Washington, DC American Association for the Advancement of Science.

EPA, Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). US Environmental Protection Agency. Available online: http://es.inel.gov/program/p2dept/commerce/mep.html (Note : As of May 3,2001 this web page is no longer available)

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OMNI, (1988). The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988

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