This past October, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International trade was awarded a $6.6 million grant to help manufacturers impacted by defense-related budget cuts retrain employees and develop advanced capabilities to better compete in a fast-changing marketplace.

CAMA, the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance, was tapped by OEDIT to administer the grant, described in detail last year in CompanyWeek.

CAMA recently announced changes to SMART, including a new name: FourFront. I met with CAMA President Tim Heaton and Chief Strategy Officer Karla Tartz to discuss the changes.

CW: SMART, the $6.6 million “defense-industry adjustment program” grant awarded to Colorado last year is itself being adjusted to reflect a new name — FourFront — and revised program. Why the change less than a year into the program?

A: The simple answer is SMART is a very crowded acronym and is used for many program initiatives. After consulting with members of the manufacturing industry around the state, we decided to create a name that tells the story behind this initiative. The mission is still the same — creating a long-term economic development strategy focused on accelerating the growth and resiliency of manufacturers across Colorado’s Advanced Industries, with a focus on advancing and assisting Colorado’s defense sector. We have always envisioned creating centers in each of our four regions that help to keep our advanced industries at the forefront of innovation and advancements — hence the name FourFront.

CW: What are the four regions?

A: Our manufacturers divided the state as follows:

  • Western Slope, from Grand Junction to Durango including all of mountain communities such as Vail, Telluride, and Steamboat;
  • Southern Colorado, including Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and other manufacturing centers such as La Junta;
  • Northern Colorado, which includes the communities from Frederick to Fort Collins and east through Greeley; and
  • Greater Denver metro area.

CW: SMART envisioned identifying 30 or so defense-impacted manufacturing companies that might benefit from retraining. FourFront envisions a wider impact. Who will benefit?

A: Yes, FourFront is about helping manufacturing across all advanced industries. However, we are not losing our focus on defense diversification.

We are currently searching for Colorado companies, whether a prime defense contractor or a first, second, third, fourth, or lower-tier subcontractor to a prime contractor affected by past defense budget cuts in federal fiscal years 2014, 2015 or will be impacted by 2016 defense reductions.

If a firm experienced a loss of or an imminent threat of a loss of at least 5 percent of sales and/or production, or of a major product line (defined as 25 percent of total sales or production), and in employment because of defense cuts; or, at least 5 percent of the firms loss in sales or production can be attributable to defense budget reductions within federal fiscal years 2014, 2015, or will be impacted by 2016 defense reductions, we want to hear from them. It’s our goal to assist these companies with technical training that will identify competencies or areas of needed improvement or advancements that will ultimately allow them to pivot into new markets or identify new opportunities.

But FourFront is more than just providing technical services and training to those directly impacted; FourFront is about providing and sharing best practices and lessons learned to ensure that our Advanced Industries are working together and not in silos. We want to connect impacted companies into a larger mentorship and support system that can assist them well beyond the end of any single technical assistance program.

CW: You mentioned the regional technical and training centers — FourFront calls for a primary Application Center connected virtually to the other regional Advancement Centers across the state. What type of equipment do you envision in the Application Center?

A: We are working with EWI, a 30 year old manufacturing applied research firm. EWI actually teamed with CAMA in the development of its response to the RFP released by OEDIT last year. FourFront and CAMA are supporting EWI as they are finalizing a 5-month process to identify applied research needs across Colorado’s manufacturers across the state. The final business plan will be completed shortly and will identify the implementation plan and the technology focus needed in Colorado. This will then dictate the types of equipment needed for such applied research. If EWI adds a site in Colorado, we will work with them on a process for making sure that the right equipment is available for all manufacturers.

We certainly envision the Advancement Centers connecting regional manufactures to technology being developed at universities and federal labs, specifically NNMIs. It is our goal to deploy and integrate these technologies into the supply chain across Colorado. EWI has a proven track record of helping manufacturers all across the nation from their Ohio facility. We are confident that with FourFront’s collaboration and EWI’s demonstrated success, all manufacturers in Colorado will be able to tap into this tremendous resource when it is available.

CW: How do food and beverage, consumer and apparel, and other manufacturers not classified as “Advanced Industries” stand to benefit?

A: We are very glad you asked this question as this is a topic that has been raised many times. Advanced Industries includes advanced manufacturing and here in the great state of Colorado our manufacturers serve diverse sectors across the Colorado economy — from electronics and consumer products to clean energy systems, aerospace vehicles, medical devices and food manufacturing and beverage processing.

Advanced manufacturing is more precisely identified at the company level rather than the industry level, and is based on company high-tech manufacturing processes, machinery, and materials rather than their final products. But it’s a question we’d like to expand on next time.

CW: What other specific outcomes does CAMA envision from FourFront and is the program a bridge to future state or regional efforts to support manufacturing, or other federal programs in the works?

A: The first and most critical step is creating the foundation or infrastructure that will allow FourFront’s mission to succeed. Too often, funding is given to silo’d or one off projects without focusing on the development and creation of a platform upon which future and deeper initiatives can occur. This first step is by far the hardest and no one state has created regional ecosystems that are then connected to each other and to national initiatives. When completed, this foundation is definitely a bridge to further state, regional and federal efforts. For example, cyber research and training is a natural next step that cuts across all Advanced Industries and can benefit all regions, especially if they are working together.

CW: In rolling out the original program OEDIT and CAMA stated transparency was a high-priority, given that tax dollars are involved. How much of the $6.6 million grant has been spent thus far — and is a cost accounting available for public view?

A: Transparency is very important and something we are working on being better at. We hope the CompanyWeek platform is just one of many that we can use to communicate updates to Colorado manufacturers. Additionally, CAMA is launching a FourFront website. In the meantime, those interested can find information and updates on CAMA’s website.

We have been very cautious up to this point (some would say too cautious) and we have only spent about 5 percent of the allocated budget. Below is an overview of spend per project through our 3rd reporting period.

Total Budget Expended in 3rd Reporting Period

Project #1: $1,000,000 $54,670

Project #2: $75,000 $34,193

Project #3: $30,000 $18,703

Project #4: $30,000 $4,972

Project #6: $300,000 $12,475

Project #7: $4,235,000 $102,859

Project #8: $200,000 $21,483

Project #9: $1,200,000 $70,082

Total: $7,270,000 $340,555

Our approach has been “go slow to go fast.” We have focused on building a solid infrastructure so we can truly build a sustainable ecosystem that benefits the state for years to come. We are close to finalizing center locations and will begin hiring and acquiring needed assets for each region. EWI is close to finalizing its report and a portion of FourFront funding will be used for Colorado’s application center. However, we know that this application center will need additional funding and we are working with local stakeholders to identify additional funding opportunities for EWI.

(Part one of a series on FourFront.)

Bart Taylor is founder and publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at 303-888-2832.