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High Tech in Rural America

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Worker from PRO-TEC inspecting coated steel (Photo: PRO-TEC)

Guest blog post by Patrick D. Gallagher, Commerce's Undersecretary of Standards and Technology and Director, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

That’s right. Rural America is also high tech. From the plains of the heartland to the cattle lands of the West and the rolling hills of farmlands in the East, our smaller communities are home to high-tech businesses that help expand U.S. exports and provide high-skilled, high-paying jobs.

Today, I was honored to take a tour of one such company, PRO-TEC Coating Co. in Leipsic, Ohio, population 2,093. The company employs about 250 people in a state-of-the-art facility surrounded by corn and soybean fields in the northwest corner of the state.  A joint venture between U.S. Steel Corporation and Kobe Steel Ltd. of Japan, PRO-TEC manufactures ultra high-strength coated steel, primarily for the auto industry.  The company is currently constructing an advanced $400 million continuous annealing processing line with an annual capacity of 500,000 tons that will expand its current capacity by 50 percent and create new manufacturing jobs.

Despite the company’s small size, PRO-TEC produced more than 85 percent of the advanced high-strength steel supplied in the United States between 2002 and 2006. Its products inhibit corrosion and help improve both a vehicle’s crash performance and fuel economy. Since 2002, the company has operated 98 percent of the time. It has a turnover rate of less than 2 percent and has never had a layoff since its founding in 1990.

PRO-TEC is a model for businesses everywhere, whether large or small, high-tech or not. It earned the 2007 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in the small business category by focusing on management best practices that include lean manufacturing, continuous improvement and empowering a self-directed workforce. And it has done so while simultaneously being recognized for its outstanding environmental and safety performance. 

What’s most exciting about visiting PRO-TEC and companies like it, however, is the potential for many other small businesses across the country to follow its lead. As part of my visit to the area, I’ll also be talking with affiliates of NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership in Ottawa and Deshler, Ohio. Earlier this week, I also stopped by the “Manufacturing, Making it Real” networking event sponsored by North Carolina State University in Greensboro, N.C., to hear from host, TE Connectivity, and other smaller manufacturers that make a variety of high-quality U.S. products, many with advanced applications. 

The U.S. still has the world’s largest manufacturing output, our workers are among the most  productive in the world, and these manufacturing companies perform two thirds of all the research and development that the United States depends on to drive innovation and industrial competitiveness.

What’s different now is the strength of our competition from abroad. And that’s why President Obama is proposing a new NIST initiative, the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia or AmTech.  Its goal is to accelerate the innovation process—discovery to invention to development of new manufacturing process technologies—to create skilled, high-wage manufacturing jobs.  It is a public-private partnership that optimizes advanced research so that our manufacturers, regardless of their location, have the technologies and data they need to continually improve their products and stay on the cutting edge.

NIST and the Department of Commerce are focused on helping U.S. companies bring to market the highest quality, most cost-effective products worldwide.

As for companies like PRO-TEC that manage to do so while also enjoying the benefits of a small, rural community without a traffic jam in sight . . .  kudos to you and keep up the excellent work.

Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology Patrick Gallagher (center in blue shirt) pauses with his hosts and other NIST senior official after a tour of the company’s manufacturing facility in Leipsic, Ohio.  Left to right  Eric Franks, Manager of Technology & Quality, PRO-TEC, Harry Hertz, Director, NIST Baldrige Performance Excellence Program; Bryan Vaughn, President, PRO-TEC; Roger Kilmer, Director, NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership;  and Kevin Kimball, NIST Chief of Staff.

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