Can two unrelated, contrasting events portend opportunity for Colorado manufacturing?

Last Wednesday Ken Lund, Colorado’s chief economic development official, rolled out details of a $6.6 million Department of Defense award, what the state calls SMART, to a group of high-tech manufacturers, educators, trade and service. SMART is short for Strengthening Manufacturing by Accelerating Research and Technology. The money will be used to build technology centers to support the development of “early-stage and proof-of-concept businesses” in seven “advanced industries” including aviation, bioscience, aerospace and electronics.

The award is a boon for a sector that’s become a major driver of economic growth in Colorado. According to Lund, ‘advanced industries’ now account for 30 percent of the state’s wage earnings; 30 percent of total sales revenues across all industries in the state; 35 percent of total exports, and more than 500,000 jobs. It’s a sector that’s creating its own news, its own stream of public-sector financial support.

A different sector can only hope for similar developments, where innovative public-private partnerships spark opportunity and optimism. This much was made clear at the inaugural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing Summit held last week in Denver.

As I’ve written, the apparel sector here is at a crossroads. The lifestyle manufacturing opportunity is huge. But Colorado’s apparel sector is struggling with the effects of offshoring the past several decades. Labor and innovation are in short supply.

That’s not stopped a vanguard of ambitious apparel and sewn product companies from thriving. Entrepreneurs find a way. But finding a cut-and-sew operation that fits is hard. The production network is tight-lipped and protective of customers and capacity. Apparel firms that have it don’t want to give it up and small sew shops are slammed. There’s little incentive for them to expand.

Apparel firms with volume or intricate, technical cuts are especially challenged. And an aggressive, ambitious U.S. garment manufacturing market is competing for business. Colorado’s a tough market.

The challenge is inspiring apparel leaders here to contemplate new ways of competing, and in today’s global marketplace the conversation increasingly involves technology. It’s a sector starving for innovation. At the Summit, Dan English, CEO of Voormi, and CJ Riggins, vice president at KidRobot, had fun debating the last major industry innovation. English cited Gore-Tex. Riggins went back to the early 20th century — and the zipper.

English is banking on a high-tech approach to the way the company manufacturers — both in making fabric and the way it assembles garments. So are others. Tom Barney, CEO of Cortez-based Osprey Packs envisions future lines being made in the U.S. Today Osprey manufacturers in Vietnam, with operation centers in southwest Colorado and Ogden, Utah.

Barney would like to see technology-driven innovation as the state tackles its sewing labor challenge. “There are whole areas of manufacturing with fabric we can’t touch here, that would require some level of scientific and technological advances,” he says. “You’d be wearing more “welded” clothing. We’re reliant on fabric and tape companies where we’d instead like to be pioneering those areas.”

Osprey plans to sew more packs here even though Barney reiterated Osprey’s position that “domestic production must be independent of location.” But the appeal of manufacturing closer to where a brand is inspired is powerful. What if innovation and technical advances occurred very close to home, in Colorado’s world-class R&D ecosystem? “We would need assistance from the state,” Barney says, “and would love to see the university system help advance the cause.”

Sounds very much like the kind of public-private collaboration that’s catapulted Colorado’s “advanced industries” to growth.

Can apparel be an “advanced industry”? Barney alludes to the possibility without framing it that way. So do apparel executives like English, who envisions a reconstituted U.S. manufacturing far different from previous generations. “It’s up to us as business leaders to find ways to drive manufacturing back here.” When it comes back, he added, “It’s not going to look the same.”

As gratifying the $6.6 million DOD grant should be for Lund and this administration, expanding “advanced industries” to included sectors that would benefit from a technology lift would be a worthy legacy.