Wisconsin manufacturers say assistance they received from the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership produced an economic benefit of $233 million in fiscal 2006, the highest ever reported.

The impact is based on surveys completed by WMEP-assisted companies. It's the second consecutive year manufacturers have reported impact of more than $200 million, the WMEP said.

WMEP provides technical expertise and business assistance to help small and mid-size manufacturers adopt advanced manufacturing technologies and business practices.

"Wisconsin manufacturers are benefiting from strategies to boost competitiveness, and those gains are having a very positive impact on their balance sheets and on our state economy," said Michael Klonsinski, executive director of WMEP. "The companies we're working with are investing in change to meet the ongoing challenge of global competition."

The value of the improvements companies reported in Wisconsin incuded $163 million in increased/retained sales, $33 million in cost savings, $37 million in investment in new plant and equipment, and 2,696 created/retained jobs. Over the past five years, WMEP-assisted manufacturers reported impact of $849.5 million with more than 8,000 jobs created/retained.

The group said it provided services to nearly 700 manufacturers in the state last year, including Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Thermoset Molding Inc., which is working with WMEP to implement lean techniques to better manage its sales growth.

Mike Kreske, vice president at Wisconsin Thermoset, said initial concerns were reducing inventory and the need to manage production issues associated with introducing six new colors into one of its flagship product lines. WMEP helped implement a value stream map to identify areas for improvement, and 5S, a lean technique to improve workplace organization. In the past year the company has cut inventory in half and improved productivity.

N.E.W. Plastics Corp., Luxemburg, Wisc., is working with WMEP to reduce machine changeover times and facilitate lean leadership throughout the company. The company is a custom plastics blow molder that manufactures custom parts and containers for the food, chemical, cosmetic, agricultural, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries.

"We're a custom manufacturer and typically have smaller quantity production runs," said Steve Prefontaine, manufacturing manager for N.E.W. Plastics. "We've already seen a 10 percent reduction, and we expect that number to reach as much as 50 percent." WMEP also helped develop lean leadership skills that led to the creation of teams and more input from rank-and-file employees on ways to improve operations.

WMEP is an affiliate of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a network of more than 60 centers across the country that provide assistance to small and mid-size manufacturers.