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Episode 58: Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center

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From food to transportation, manufacturing operations keep our lives moving. Manufacturers are a vital part of our economy and offer rewarding career opportunities. The Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center (TMAC) at SwRI supports small to large manufacturers with the tools for success, including training and workforce development. They are changing the perception of manufacturing work, helping companies update processes and integrate new technology, such as robotics and software, into production lines. While this is a regional center, TMAC’s robust manufacturing network builds connections with manufacturers across the country.

Listen now as SwRI Sr. Program Manager and TMAC Regional Director Bill Rafferty discusses TMAC’s impact and overcoming challenges in manufacturing.

Visit TMAC South Central Region to learn more.


Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for clarity.

Lisa Peña (LP): From food to vehicles, manufactured products are at the core of our daily lives. A long-running SwRI program supports manufacturers boosting business and improving profits, processes, and products. We're highlighting the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center and its contributions to manufacturing and the workforce. Next, on this episode of Technology Today.


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Hello, and welcome to Technology Today. I'm Lisa Peña. We use manufactured goods every day. Manufacturing contributes to jobs, the economy, and impacts our way of life. The Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center at SwRI supports manufacturers with training and technology. SwRI senior program manager, engineer, and South Central Regional Director Bill Rafferty joins us now to discuss the center's impact, mission, upcoming events, and more. Thanks for joining us, Bill.

Manufacturing Day 2019

SwRI Sr. Program Manager and TMAC Regional Director Bill Rafferty gives a guided tour of the Institute’s robotic laboratories during Manufacturing Day 2019.

Bill Rafferty (BR): Hi, Lisa. Thanks for having me on your program.

LP: So Bill, I want to start with the big picture. Tell us about the vital role manufacturers play in our communities and in our lives and how did you get involved in manufacturing?

BR: Manufacturing has always been of interest to me because by definition, you take raw materials and create finished goods, and therefore, create value. So with that, there's a tremendous opportunity. And there's great careers in manufacturing. And I got involved with the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center some, almost 25 years ago. And it's really grown on me because of the opportunities, really, for the workforce, as well as the means of a connection back to the Institute.

LP: Manufacturing is really important to our way of life and most of us don't realize it. Could you shed some light on the importance of manufacturers and manufacturing?

BR: Sure. And actually, it's become more in the mainstream discussion these days. There's a lot of concern about reshoring and bringing back manufacturing domestically here. And so the excitement around manufacturing is really that there's great opportunities, again, for the workforce, and creating those goods because it quickly becomes kind of an issue of national security, as well as an opportunity for young folks finding interesting careers.

LP: And when we're talking about goods, I mean, we're talking about everything.

BR: Yeah. And the Central Texas area, which is the area that this TMAC program serves, everything from aircraft to vehicles, we have the Toyota plant down south of San Antonio, to Samsung with the production of chips up in the Austin area, to even windmills out in San Angelo.

LP: All right. Again, manufacturing, manufacturers, important to our way of life. What are some challenges in manufacturing today?

BR: The number one thing that I hear from our customers is, really, the challenge to acquire and retain talent. One of the things that manufacturing struggles with is kind of a negative stigma about being a dull and dirty profession. But really, it's lots of opportunity for young people because of all the new tools. You think of all the technologies, robotics, automation, software, et cetera, it really is great opportunities for production to increase its efficiency, and really, an opportunity for young people to get involved, use their talents, their problem-solving skills, and really forge really great and fantastic careers for both themselves and their family down the line.

LP: So it's not just about being stuck in a factory all day? There's so much more to it?

BR: Yeah, no, you think of some of those old images of factories with steam and grime, and there are some still remaining factories that are hot, but for the most part, there's great opportunities with air conditioning. Some of the user interfaces are very similar to your phone. That's how you control a robot.

So yes, there's, and I think the education system has been a little too highly focused on the four-year degree. So there has been a shift recognizing the need for career and technical education and that talent to serve manufacturers. So again, yeah, there's just a lot of job openings right now for, and you can step in without any experience. If you want to work hard, there's great opportunity.

And I'll digress for a second, a little story, but it's one of the professions that you can step in without any skills, willing to work in the lowest level assembler, but maybe retire as the plant manager, in contrast to, say, life sciences where you need a degree, et cetera. But yes, you can work through their continuing ed and really forge a fantastic experience and career.

LP: A lot of upward mobility?
Bill Rafferty

Rafferty leads the TMAC South Central Region office based at SwRI. In response to manufacturing challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, TMAC and SwRI joined other local organizations to form the Medical Manufacturing Alliance of South Central Texas to support manufacturers as they navigated the spike in demand for personal protective equipment and medical supplies.

BR: Yes.

LP: Thank you for that foundation about manufacturing, and it's a great place to get started to hear more about the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center. So tell us about the TMAC. What is its mission? How big is your team? And tell us about your coverage area, South Central region.

BR: Sure. And maybe I'll I digress a little bit, kind of a big picture. This is part of a national program based in the Department of Commerce known as the Manufacturing Extension Partnership. And the MEP was founded back around 1988. And with the, they were recognizing that Japan was producing these small cars that had high quality, affordable, and really a great product. So that concern Japan was really thriving, and domestically, we were concerned, our government was. So and part of the challenge there was, hey, there's some great quality strategies, production strategies. How do we provide access to those technologies and strategies at the lower level?

In some ways, it kinda paralleled to agricultural extension centers where you were farmers and trying to better ways to grow crops, excuse me. But so this was in fact, it was originally called the Industrial Extension Center. Anyway, so for more far-reaching history. But here locally, there's 51 centers now, equivalent to the TMAC program, which stands for the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center. And it's designed, again, to be local resource, local affordable resources for better strategies and technology to increase efficiency.

And interesting now, we're really concerned more about the competition with China. So we've shifted Japan, actually, has declined because of really, it comes down to demographics, but their population hasn't grown, so they haven't been able to compete. They still obviously design great products, but now China is and their wealth and concerns about maybe we need more things built here domestically.

LP: OK. And TMAC specifically, we touched a little bit on this, but when you say manufacturers, what industries are you targeting and who do you serve specifically?

BR: Yeah, that's a great question, Lisa. Actually, anyone in the manufacturing. So we have a really wide breadth of customers and products that we serve, but a lot of the strategies apply in similar. There's quality management systems, known as ISO 9001, which really establishes management and execution principles. There's things such as the Toyota production systems or lean manufacturing. All of these apply to the various manufacturers. So we're assigned more to a region than a particular industry. So we reach all the way out west to San Angelo, up north all the way up to Waco, southeast to Victoria. But our main metropolitan areas are Austin and San Antonio.

LP: And are there requirements manufacturers must meet to join your region's program? Such as number of employees or annual revenue?

BR: No. We work with a large organizations. It's a small. And again, there is a NAICS code that's a qualifying element, so the government knows we assisted in actual manufacturers. That's a North American Industrial supply code. And there's a range of numbers that represent manufacturing companies. And so as long as they have one of those NAICS codes as associated with their D&B number, then we're able to work in the program. And what this turns into is really more affordable pricing. So we receive dollars, which reduces our cost. And so our services are, some of them are free, and we do tap into some grants, but for the most part, we charge.

So we charge for our training classes, we charge for our engagements. Maybe they would be a project where we would look at their operations, make recommendations, work with their team to come up with better ways to do things. But yes, we charge for our service. So it's a partnership with our customers, as well as the government, as well as the Institute hosting this program.

LP: Open to all manufacturers?

BR: Open to all manufacturers. And we try to reach all manufacturers and different levels. So we sometimes do webinars, we do seminars. That could be locally on-site. It could be virtual now, which we've all gotten better at that. Maybe too much of that at times. But then we do training classes, and we fill these classes with participants or employees from the local companies, which really provides kind of a rich experience so that you can exchange ideas and learnings as we do our training in our classes.

LP: OK, let's get into a little TMAC history. The South Central Field Office opened in 1995. How did it come to be located here on the SwRI campus?

BR: Sure. We used to have a group of industrial engineers. And when this opportunity, it was an RFP put out on the street, as the government does when it looks for a host. So we actually paired up with three other entities, and we're part of the original proposal to create the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center. So I mentioned the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which is now 51 centers which represents a center for each state plus Puerto Rico. So I guess the RFP was on the street, and we were one of the original team members to cover the State of Texas.

Texas is a big state. There's not really one entity that really can cover locally well. So it really took a partnership also at the state level. So the University of Texas at Arlington is our current prime, but we also partner with other universities, include Texas Tech in the Lubbock area, UT El Paso for obviously in Far West Texas, UT Rio Grande Valley down in the valley, South Texas, as well as the TEEX, part of the A&M system. And hopefully University of Houston-Clear Lake is now helping to serve the Houston area, as well as Lamar University in the Beaumont area. So I think we've mostly covered hopefully I didn't leave anyone out.

LP: So Texas is very well-covered with all these TMAC partners?

BR: Yeah. Again, with that mission to provide local services because that's also an element of affordability, so you're not flying in a consultant from, say, Boston or New York. Here, we're trying the program is designed to be local resources that helps with the efficiency and the affordability, as well as being able to build relationships.

LP: OK, I'd like to hear a little bit more about the program courses. You mentioned consulting. So how many courses do you offer? What are attendees learning?

BR: Yeah. We range from some of the basics of Lean manufacturing or the Toyota Production System. We also have a very successful program about supervisors. It's called a Manufacturing Supervisor Certification Program, where we train kind of newly-anointed team members that have taken on a role of a group for leadership and they may not receive all the skills. It's an opportunity to learn how to train someone, how to lead someone, how to problem-solve, how to work well in teams, et cetera.

LP: So how do you find your attendees? Where do where do they come from?

BR: Yeah, that's a great question, Lisa. I guess as and I'll back up a little bit. In contrast to the Institute, who has customers sprinkled around the globe in particular market sectors, we're an outreach program serving a local area around the Institute. And so with that, we've kind of worked with some of the organizations that were already established here. One of those was the San Antonio Manufacturers Association. Obviously if we're here to serve manufacturers and they already have about 170 manufacturing members, it really made sense to partner with them.

So we've had a long history of working with SAMA. And so our training classes are promoted, and work with them. We have a strong relationship. And maybe another area to speak to, we had such good success working with SAMA, and we decided 10 years ago that we should start something up in Austin because Austin wasn't thought of as really a manufacturing town, it was more of a government, hippy, technology town.

So 10 years ago, we helped start the Austin Regional Manufacturers Association. We use some of our federal money to sponsor a gentleman named, Ed Latson, who's still the president there. But in 10 years, that organization has grown to 265 members with 200 manufacturers membership there. So we work closely with them to roll out our programs, build relationships, and either do the training classes or find, really, projects or consulting opportunities where we get a little deeper into the factory.

LP: So the program now has been going strong for almost 30 years, which speaks to its success. What kind of feedback are you getting about TMAC?

BR: Oh, I guess it's an interesting thing because the administrative element of the Department of Commerce is NIST, which is the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST is known for measuring time, wait, length. Well, when you have a program managed by NIST, they measure everything. So they measure our customers. In fact, every customer is surveyed with multi-part survey instrument. And so we get lots of feedback. And probably the most rewarding element of the feedback that we get is, really, that we've made an impact. So those federal dollars are working. And in fact, through the independent third party, they measure for every dollar federal dollar, there are $16 returning back into the Treasury. So it's a very impactful program.

LP: Yeah. So I'm sure you have multiple examples, but could you tell us about a success story, a time that maybe TMAC helped a manufacturing business succeed? This one in particular or maybe more than one come to mind.

BR: Oh, they're all over the map. There was an educational testing company, maybe a non-traditional manufacturer, but we helped them lean out their processes, and they went from having late test scores one year to everyone was on time, and this is a national testing firm. So that was based here in San Antonio. We worked very closely with some of the smaller manufacturing companies to double their production with the same amount of people, those kind of situations. As well, I think the most rewarding element is someone that goes through, say, our supervisor class and we find out that not only did they successful at that level, but then they were quickly promoted to the next level. So those are probably the individual success stories that we probably enjoy the most.

LP: So good feedback from those surveys and great results overall. So that's got to feel rewarding on many levels. So as you mentioned, TMAC is a network affiliate of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Is being part of this national network beneficial for Texas manufacturers? Are you seeing maybe collaborations out of this network?

BR: Yeah, no, that's a very good question, and that's, I guess, the design or the mission of being a part of a national network. They do share proven materials. And with that, it becomes efficient there, too. Maybe another area for an example of that is cybersecurity. That's on everyone's mind these days. And one of the elements, especially to participate in the Department of Defense's supply chain, is to have somewhat of an accreditation or you meet the elements of a compliance standard. And not to get into too many numbers, but there's something known as 800-171. So it's a standard that NIST stood up.

And here, they have 51 centers that are working with small manufacturers, which are probably the most vulnerable in the whole supply chain defense network. And so they've rolled out this standard, and we've been able to help a number of local manufacturers come into compliance and be able to bid on contracts based on how they score themselves. It's a self-assessment, but even the Institute has gone through the same program. So we've got that, built that skill set. And that came through being part of a national network. We didn't have to start from scratch.

LP: So there's a big day coming up. Manufacturing Day is on October 6. And Manufacturing Day is a national celebration of manufacturing in America. And it's also an opportunity to highlight the contributions of manufacturing. So what does the day represent for you and TMAC, and how will you be celebrating?

BR: Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, it's probably more important to obviously me than many others. Yes, manufacturing, it's been a running national program to put the spotlight on manufacturing, and that there are great opportunities. And open the doors and get a lot more exposure to what's really going on in manufacturing. So we coordinate with the San Antonio Manufacturers Association, the Austin Regional Manufacturing Association, and help, and as well as have a program typically at lunchtime talking about advancements in robotics. So we open our doors here at the Institute, provide a tour of what robots can do and how they're a great, useful tool.

But yeah. The other businesses here locally and those two metropolitan areas typically open their doors provide opportunities for tours for both teachers and students to come and learn more. And we get a real mix of all kinds of people that come by and take a look.

LP: So you've touched on many times how there are so many opportunities available. And so for young people figuring out career options, what educational pathways lead to a successful manufacturing career? What should they be learning now?

BR: Yeah, that's a great question, and then I'll probably take it to another nonprofit that I'm involved with. But first, what skill sets? Someone who's willing to work hard. Someone that works in teams is really important. The ability to work with others. Someone that likes to solve problems. Someone that likes to find better ways to do things. Folks that like to work with their hands. Also, people that don't mind working with technology. All of those fit a really good role and can really thrive in a manufacturing company.

LP: So I like that you said sometimes you just need some technical training, and then you can get in there and start your manufacturing career. And sometimes it's a little higher level, maybe when you're working with a robotics or that aspect of the manufacturing. But really, it sounds like there's something at all skill levels in manufacturing.

BR: So you can start straight out of high school or maybe not even finish. There are also dual-credit programs here with the Alamo Colleges. St. Philip's College hosts the academies in which you can as a junior and senior. It's a dual-credit program. And you can graduate high school with 34 credit hours towards your associate's degree in manufacturing. There's also an equivalent in aerospace and cybersecurity.

So there's a lot of pathways to get into hit the ground running in a manufacturing operation. Toyota is a big supporter of the academies. There's also Texas FAME, which is another program that provides training very affordable, if not free, yes, so a lot of great opportunities. And one of the and I briefly mentioned that I'm involved in a nonprofit. ATEAMS is the Alliance for Technology Education and Applied Math and Science. So that's a long acronym that basically is designed to help teachers, provide them exposure to what the opportunities.

The thinking there is if you can influence a teacher and their lessons plans to real-world examples on how to use math and how to apply that in a career, then we could influence students. So one teacher can influence 150 students each year. So it's a very scalable solution. So this ATEAMS program, which is a nonprofit, is funded by the Texas Workforce Commission, not an education program. But the workforce really is recognizing there's such a need to fill such a gap that they're trying to really influence our educators.

And so this program is one-week experience. The teachers receive a $500 stipend. And they get exposure to three different companies. So we toured New Star, we toured the Institute has hosted three different groups of teachers. And they went through our chemistry department. They went through our autonomous vehicle, our cybersecurity associated with vehicles. Probably some of the other topics on your program. And anyway, that gains some exposure to really steer their lesson plans. And anyway, that's another rewarding career, and we get to tour these plants.

LP: Yeah, that's a really interesting way of ultimately reaching the student and helping them realize what's out there for them. So are you saying that the teachers, once the teacher is aware of these opportunities, they can then share that with their students, but is there more to it as far as how they're teaching the kids?

BR: Yeah. I guess it's twofold. One is that, really to maybe influence. Maybe a young person that's really not so good on the books or is distracted, but they work with their hands and they're intuitive and they ask questions and they want to make things happen, maybe a teacher can then influence them towards a manufacturing career. And also explain to them, manufacturing is really fighting that stigma of the dull, dirty, and dangerous occupation, but again, with the technologies and tools and computers and automation, there's really fantastic opportunities. And they pay well. And as more that we influence teachers to explain to our young people that there are good careers.

And really, some of the parents, it's hard to get access to a parent to try to lead their kids in an alternative path, but if the teachers can, maybe that'll be part of the solution.

LP: That's great. Showing them the value in manufacturing and the opportunities there. So we've been focusing on the South Central region. Obviously we're in San Antonio, Texas, so we're talking about opportunities in and around San Antonio and Texas, but there really are these types of opportunities across the country. So what is your advice for somebody not in Texas? Who should they reach out to? Where do you think is a good place to start to find out about their opportunities in their area?

BR: Yeah. If they want to take advantage of the equivalent to the TMAC program, Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center, it's a good question because every state has a different branding. So Texas had partnership with the State of Texas. And so and since you're involved in marketing and communications, we have a branding challenge. Every state has a different title to their center. And so really, you should go maybe do a Google for NIST and MEP, and then it comes up with a map, and you can click down and find the respective center for resources in your respective state.

LP: So again, NIST stands for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and MEP is Manufacturing Extension Partnership. So that's great advice. Look those up and see where they connect in your state.

BR: Yeah, yeah. You'll find a map. You can click on your state and drill down to the local office to tap into some of these programs, resources, webinars, et cetera.

LP: Yeah. OK, great. So getting back to TMAC now. What is your favorite part of managing the center and conducting these courses?

BR: It's very rewarding, I guess, in the fact that it's got a great mission to help people and help organizations. So the training programs, as they build skills, it's always a teaching element. When it turns into results, that's very rewarding. And then also, I like interfacing with the local community. Sometimes the same people we help during the day, we run into in ballgames or our kids' programs. One of my biggest customers actually was another father of a father-daughter program. So the fact that it is local and the travel is very manageable, that's maybe a perk by focusing on a local program. But yeah, it's rewarding on all those levels.

LP: So what does the future hold for manufacturing? Can you look into the crystal ball there? What do you foresee?

BR: Well, in Central Texas, despite everything else or maybe better said is that we're seeing a real resurgence. A lot of companies are locating here in the San Antonio, Seguin, New Braunfels, San Marcos, Austin, Cedar Park, Georgetown. There's tremendous opportunity right now. Tesla is an example of a new employer. They hired 10,000 employees within the last 12 months. So there's tremendous opportunity. Every manufacturer is struggling to find all the talent they need. So that's the opportunity, really, for young people. You can start a career.

And for example, here at the Institute, we have lots of engineers. And some would argue that an engineer that may have taken a longer pathway, actually maybe got their toes wet by actually participating in a factory or a manufacturing company and applying technology before just going straight through school, makes probably a more robust engineer.

LP: Yeah. Getting that hands-on experience.

BR: Hands-on experience..

LP: valuable.

BR: Making things.

LP: So I'm listening to all these opportunities here in our region. You're going to get people moving here, it sounds like.

BR: We want them. Although it hurts the congestion and the traffic around here, but yeah, I-35, which is the main highway between Austin and San Antonio, just cannot keep up with the traffic flow. And home prices are elevating, but again, you can there are great opportunities so.

LP: What is the main takeaway today? What would you like listeners to remember about manufacturing?

BR: I guess a couple. It's not the dull, dirty profession of the past. Great opportunities at any level if you're looking for a career. And you can go many different directions. Consider manufacturing. I guess maybe another takeaway is that there's great programs out there such as TMAC or the Manufacturing Extension Partnership. There's programs that can provide training or consulting service affordably. And then maybe, finally, there's also great educational programs out there. The Texas Workforce Commission, Ready to Work. There's a lot of programs trying to address that gap in talent. Unemployment is very low, and at least in Texas, we're, again, struggling to keep up. And there's a lot of dollars for training. So there's, with that, lots of opportunities.

LP: Yeah. I love all this talk about opportunity and the value in all types of skill level and how you can just look for your local manufacturing manufacturer and pop in and learn something new and maybe start a whole new career.

BR: Yes.

LP: Great.

BR: Absolutely.

LP: All right. Well, great discussion today on a topic that impacts our lives every day. Thank you, Bill for helping us learn more about manufacturing and TMAC at SwRI.

BR: Lisa, thank you for your time.

And thank you to our listeners for learning along with us today. You can hear all of our Technology Today episodes and see photos and complete transcripts at Remember to share our podcast and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

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Ian McKinney and Bryan Ortiz are the podcast audio engineers and editors. I am producer and host, Lisa Peña.

Thanks for listening.


The mission of the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center (TMAC) is to accelerate the profitable growth and competitiveness of Texas manufacturers. Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas, serves as the state’s South Central field office and has been a part of the TMAC network since 1995. On average, TMAC customers see a 16:1 return on their investment.