Colorado gets in the lifestyle manufacturing game

By Bart Taylor | Jun 06, 2016

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Earlier this year I wrote that manufacturing "can again become a jobs engine with the launch of thousands of new manufacturing businesses, a wave of middle-market companies across diverse industries. What we lack in large we'll make up for in volume, in hot sectors like food and beverage, advanced contract manufacturing and lifestyle and consumer industries."

Last month, CNBC featured CEO Paul Trible of Richmond, Virginia-based apparel maker Ledbury, who confirmed my sentiment under the headline, "Workshops, not factories, are US manufacturing's future." Trible described the new manufacturing economy this way: "Companies will bifurcate their product lines. Uniform-volume product will be made abroad, and highly personal, customizable goods will be created domestically."

Indeed, large companies are rediscovering small-batch manufacturing here, domestically, even as overseas factories churn out volume products. The difference in methodology can be striking. Today U.S. operations are often informed by advanced technologies and processes that enable customization, speed time-to-market, and enable brands to follow changing consumer preferences in real time -- not on schedules dictated by contract producers overseas. Superior quality is also a game changer. As Ledbury notes, "We are not going to be able to compete on price with other countries, but we can compete on craft. American-made will become a luxury brand."

But small business will be the primary catalyst for 21st-century manufacturing, and for them, access to technology, advanced processes and money is more limited. That's a why a subtle change being implemented by Colorado's Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) is an important development for regional makers and manufacturers.

Colorado's growing cadre of lifestyle manufacturers including apparel and outdoor companies are now eligible to apply for Advanced Industry Accelerator Program grants, a program to this point reserved for early-stage companies developing high-tech products or those commercialized with the help of research entities or universities. In the state's vernacular, 'Advanced Manufacturing' is one of 14 'Key Industry' sectors identified in Governor Hickenlooper's Colorado Blueprint, the administration's guiding economic roadmap.

I've had issues with the Blueprint. For starters, 'advanced manufacturing' isn't an industry, it's a process. More problematic, it leaves companies not considered 'advanced' largely unconnected from a larger community of manufacturers and often without access to support, services, and money available to those, for example, considered tech-savvy enough for grants.

But technology is a catalyst for manufacturers operating in historically low-tech sectors -- like apparel, where innovation lags. The type of small-batch customization envisioned by Trible and championed by Colorado's own group of lifestyle companies will require advanced technology and processes. In this vein, 'advanced manufacturing' shouldn't be a filter to disqualify worthy companies from financial aid; it should be viewed as an accelerator to spur growth and advance low-tech manufacturing.

With a push from Luis Benitez, director of Colorado's outdoor industry office, and Katie Woslager, Advanced Industries' senior grant manager, OEDIT finally agrees. Benitez tells me that today, OEDIT is accepting applications from "outdoor recreation, cut-and-sew, ski/snowboard, and bike manufacturing companies under Advanced Manufacturing applications".

Apparel and outdoor recreation companies as Advanced Manufacturers! Not only does the change recognize that manufacturers in all sectors are increasingly 'advanced' and using technology to reshape markets and create opportunity, it's a crucial component that's been missing in the state's outdoor and lifestyle promotional efforts.

Colorado, Utah, and others 'tourist' destinations will fully leverage their incredible lifestyle assets only with increased efforts to promote the region as a destination for lifestyle manufacturers. CompanyWeek has been beating this drum since September 2013, the same year the Colorado legislature passed the Advanced Industry Accelerator Program.

Welcome to the lifestyle game.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.

Note: Colorado's Office of Economic Development and International Trade will summarize the Advanced Industry Accelerator Program grant application process at CompanyWeek's 2nd annual Manufacturing Growth & Financing Conference, July 27, in Denver. Click here for details and to register.