N.J.’s manufacturers are eager and ready to help — but face many obstacles

By Tom Bergeron
New Jersey | Mar 23, 2020 at 9:40 am
Editor’s Desk

Suuchi Ramesh, founder and CEO of Suuchi Inc., is like thousands of manufacturers in the state of New Jersey. (Yes, there are thousands.)

“We have the technology to power many hundred factories on our platform, and the people, machines and capacity to pivot to cater to the needs of the state and the country right now,” she told ROI-NJ. “We just need to know who needs what. We’re still figuring that out.”

As the state and the country work desperately to find a way to manufacture more Personal Protection Equipment — such as the N95 masks that health care workers must wear while helping those with COVID-19 — there are manufacturers here that are eager to help.

If only it were that easy.

Suuchi Ramesh.

You can’t just retool machines and manufacturing assembly lines overnight. And that’s just one of a host of issues.

John Kennedy, the thoughtful leader of the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program — someone who has owned and sold two engineering and manufacturing companies himself — breaks it down.

“There’s a cost to retool your facility to try to make something,” he said. “This isn’t just flipping a switch. There are costs involved and a lot of these manufacturers aren’t in a position to absorb them — even if they wanted to.”

And they want to.

“Companies want to do something,” he said. “They all do. I’ve talked to so many over the past week. They want to know where they can help. And they want to try to figure things out, but it’s not an easy step.”

Part of it is regulation. Not the type of government regulation that hampers productivity, the type of regulation that protects people. The people who are making the equipment as well as the people who are going to wear it.

“When you’re talking about masks and filtration devices, there’s specs from the FDA or OSHA — and if you’re not approved to make it, you can’t make it,” Kennedy said. “You certainly don’t want to make something that might do harm.

“Producing certain things such as lab coats might be easy. We found a mask that’s sort of like a face shield. It wouldn’t impede your breathing. Is that doable? Would that help? I don’t know. Part of the problem is figuring out who can do what.”

MEP is doing its part. It already had a database with nearly 10,000 manufacturers from around the state. Last week, it created a critical supply chain database — a more robust effort that can more easily help one company help another, depending on what is needed. It has approximately 850 companies.

(If you’re a manufacturer, please fill out this form.)

The good news: The government is doing its part, too.

Not necessarily at the highest levels.

Gov. Phil Murphy hinted he was all but stunned that President Donald Trump has not initiated the Defense Production Act, which — among other things — enables the president to requisition property, force industry to expand production and the supply of basic resources. It has been implemented more than 50 times since it was authorized during the Korean War in 1950.

“I would have thought, given the dramatic shortfall we have in Personal Protection Equipment, that it would be an all-hands-on-deck moment in terms of converting manufacturers to produce that equipment,” Murphy said Sunday during his daily coronavirus briefing.

John Kennedy.

Of course, manufacturers in New Jersey don’t need to be forced into doing anything. They want to help, Kennedy said. They just need help to do so.

For starters, they need financing.

“We not only have to figure out who has it, who can make it — but, also, how do they get paid for it,” Kennedy said. “These companies aren’t in the position to make a lot of stuff for free. So, they’re trying to figure out on the federal and state level, how can they go about that — and make the companies comfortable enough.”

Kennedy said state Sens. Steve Oroho (R-Sparta) and Linda Greenstein (D-Cranbury), the bipartisan leaders of the Manufacturing Caucus, have been great. As have other elected officials: U.S. Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-5th Dist.) and Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.) and U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker (both D-N.J.).

Kennedy lists state officials, such as Melanie Willoughby at the Business Action Center and leaders at the Department of Labor & Workforce Development, the Economic Development Authority and the Governor’s Office, as being receptive to the needs of manufacturers, too.

“I think the way the governor has interacted with this sector during this has energized them to help lead the way,” Kennedy said. “I had over 5,000 emails, and 99% of them are people who want to help. They’re saying, ‘What can we do? How can we tell the governor that we’re here?’ It was really invigorating to hear that.”

Kennedy said MEP is thrilled to see the governmental involvement.

“We’re staying out of the way on that,” Kennedy said. “We work with manufacturers. That’s what we know, that’s where we should be. We shouldn’t be trying to figure out where the flow of money might happen.

“But they’re making gains. They’re all doing some good things. I’m really impressed with how much they’ve stepped up. They’ve just got to find out how the money flows down.”

Yes, the money. The first crack at a stimulus bill failed in Congress on Sunday. This will get done. How it will help the manufacturers remains to be seen.

Of course, it’s just one step.

Figuring out the logistics and the supply chain are another. And that starts with getting the specs for some of the most-needed equipment — let alone retooling factories.

Kennedy warns that’s not easy, either.

Companies in New Jersey don’t have that information. Getting it isn’t as easy as it would seem.

“If you’re a company that has developed something that’s a product — and it’s been your life’s blood and their livelihood for generations, and so many manufacturers are family businesses — they may not want other companies to have their designs and their secrets,” Kennedy said. “You can’t blame them. This is their business. And, when this is over, they want to have a business.

“It’s not because they’re selfish, it’s because they’ve developed a business — a livelihood — around this. You think Apple is giving away its secrets right now?”

In the meantime, Kennedy is urging manufacturers to keep doing what they do best.

“We tell them, make your product — do what you do,” he said. “You’re part of the supply chain. You’re already making things such as the bottles and caps for medicine, that’s important, keep doing that.”

The good news: They all want to do more, Kennedy said.

“I’ve been in engineering and manufacturing for more than 30 years —and I’ve been with MEP for seven years — and I’ve never seen this industry through anything like this,” he said. “I thought we came together pretty well to help each other after Sandy, but this has been amazing.”

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