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October 06, 2015 | Tom Ballard

RAMP panel presents a mostly upbeat outlook for regional manufacturing

RAMP 2015 ConferenceBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

The outlook was mostly upbeat when a panel of local industry executives joined the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Matt Murray yesterday for a conversation about manufacturing in the region.

The discussion, moderated by UT’s Michael McIntyre, occurred during the second annual “RAMP Manufacturers’ Conference and EXPO.” The event began with a reception Monday night and concluded in mid-afternoon Tuesday after a day of program sessions.RAMP, which is housed at Tech 2020, stands for the Regional Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, an initiative initially funded under a federal grant that is currently transitioning into a membership-based entity.

“This is a great region for manufacturing,” Murray told the attendees. The UT economist and Director of the Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy has a unique perspective on the issue – from his professional roles at the university as well as his long-time service on the Blount County Industrial Development Board.

Murray’s views were echoed by Jeff Bohanan, Chief Executive Officer of Oak Ridge-based Protomet. “It’s a great place to live and work,” he said in citing factors such as the progressive atmosphere and the emphasis on educational improvements.

Fellow panelist Adam Kuhn, Vice President of Operations for ProNova Solutions, LLC, emphasized two areas – one that many might discount, but one that could be a real asset, and another that probably goes largely unknown.

“Something that stands-out here is the willingness of people to partner,” he said in describing ProNova’s business strategy. The other is the fact that three particle accelerator manufacturers are located here.

“What other community can claim that it has that (asset base),” Kuhn asked?

No discussion of manufacturing occurs without the topic of workforce quality being raised. As Bohanan noted, there is greatly increased emphasis on the subject here with the “Drive to 55” and “Tennessee Promise” initiatives being two examples.

“Every state in the region has a workforce goal, but Tennessee’s is more aggressive,” Murray observed, adding additional context on a national basis. “The workforce problem we confront regionally is really a national problem.”

Murray and McIntyre engaged in an exchange about advanced manufacturing, with the former urging attendees to think of the term as something that every manufacturer is already embracing or should.

“Process improvements are what have propelled manufacturing for years,” Murray said. “We should be thinking about innovation and processes rather than specific products.”

In terms of the longer term, Murray talked about both the global economy and cyclical nature of the domestic economy.

“All is good right now,” he said. “The domestic economy is on a good footing.” That’s not the case, however, from an international perspective.

“The global economy is slowing down,” Murray noted. “The recent jobs report was way below expectations.”

Many worry about China, yet Murray offered some optimism in that regard.

“Interestingly, China says it is going away from manufacturing to services,” he explained. “If they are serious, that opens up opportunities for manufacturing here.”

After 14 years of decline in the manufacturing sector from 1997 through 2010, Murray says Tennessee has enjoyed good job growth in manufacturing. He even described the increases in nondurable goods as “unprecedented.” That is predicted to start declining again by 2018.

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