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Toolkit & Guide: Leveraging Universities to Advance Manufacturing Innovation

This toolkit is designed to help institutions of higher education (IHEs) and NIST MEPs Centers (MEPs) build strong partnerships for the benefit of small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs). We suggest that potential partners read through the toolkit and use the tools as you consider building a partnership. Take the time to use the tools as a guide to conversations about the following:

  • The potential benefits of collaboration.
  • The principles that should guide the partnership.
  • A vision for the ideal future state of the partnership and a roadmap for getting there.
  • Roles and responsibilities within the partnership.
  • Methods and processes for identifying and attracting interest from SMMs that might benefit from the partnership.
  • Forging a three-way agreement between a university, MEP and SMM.
  • Identifying the talent development required to implement Industry 4.0 technology.
  • Identifying other opportunities for advancing the partnership’s shared goals.

Learn more about the Leveraging Universities to Advance Manufacturing Innovation through the National MEP Network Initiative.


Each section below features topic overviews and downloadable tools to utilize. For more in-depth explanations and reference materials on each section, download the accompanying Toolkit Guide.

Download the Characteristics of Effective Partnership and Collaboration Assessment


The toolkit describes several characteristics of effective partnership and collaboration that were developed from our experiences working with partners. This tool provides a way to assess the strength of your partnership based on those characteristics.

The tool is structured to help you and your partners identify gaps in your collaboration. There is a section to be completed by the college or university, another to be completed by the MEP, and a third to optionally be completed by an SMM, if you choose to include a manufacturer in the assessment.

Once each partner has completed their section, assess and discuss two types of gaps:

  1. gaps between the current performance and importance for each characteristic—where are there big differences between how partners have rated the performance of the collaboration on a particular characteristic and how important the characteristic is to partners?
  2. gaps among partners’ perspectives—where are the big differences between partners’ responses on the ratings of individual characteristics?

Download the MEP University Partnership Improvement Goals Worksheet

The Assessing Your Current MEP University Partnership tool helped you identify gaps in your current partnership based on the characteristics of effective partnerships presented in the toolkit.

Once you’ve assessed gaps, you can set goals for improving the partnership. Use the table on the following page to identify goals, target outcomes, and timelines, and identify responsibilities.

Download the Force Field Analysis Tool

Force Field Analysis: INSTRUCTIONS (see also the example on slide 3)

Force Field Analysis Tool Image

The following tool has been created based on what is sometimes called a “force field analysis,” in which a team looks at some future outcome or state, then assesses two opposing forces for creating that state: drivers and barriers.

Using this adapted force field analysis, you can assess the drivers of and barriers to achieving a future state of “The Ideal University-MEP Partnership,” which we will define broadly as a partnership that creates positive technology adoption outcomes for small- and medium-sized manufacturers.

First in the blue column, list 3 – 6 characteristics of the ideal partnership. What does that partnership look like? Does the ideal partnership include shared resources? Shared vision? Revenue generation? No right answers here—you should fill in what you and your partners think are the key characteristics of the ideal partnership, which is creating positive outcomes for SMMs.

Next, in the green cells, identify as many key drivers for the future state as you can. If the blue column describes “where our partnership is going,” the items in the green part of the table represent “what’s going to get us there.”

Finally, in the orange cells, identify as many potential barriers as you can. These items are “what is getting in our way (or might get in our way) as we work on getting there.”

Consider the following four elements in your drivers and/or barriers. Copy and paste the icons into the cells where you address these, to highlight their inclusion.

1) partnership principles
2) key staff, relationships
3) workflow and communication
4) aligning timelines
5) goals and metrics

Download the Assessing Workforce Needs and Assets Tool
Explore workforce development issues and how these are playing out in your partnership. Complete the framework on the next page. The following page provides an example of how these issues were identified for the Northern Illinois University/IMEC partnership.

  1. Start with the middle column. Identify 3 – 5 talent and workforce development needs that have become evident and that are related specifically to the focus of the current partnership and technology/technologies. Then, identify 3 – 5 more general, longer-term workforce needs.
    Start with the middle column. Identify 3 – 5 talent and workforce development needs that have become evident and that are related specifically to the focus of the current partnership and technology/technologies. Then, identify 3 – 5 more general, longer-term workforce needs.
  2. Next, in the second column from the left, identify HEI assets (academic programs, experts, facilities, research, etc.) that can be tapped to help address each of the workforce needs you have identified.
  3. Then work on the first column at the left. In this column, identify ways in which the MEP can/should partner with the HEI in order to engage the listed HEI assets and make them available to SMMs to help them address workforce needs.
  4. Next, focus on MEP assets (staff expertise, relationships, events, facilities, etc.) that can be tapped for each of the identified workforce needs.
  5. Finally, in the last column on the right, identify the ways in which the University can/should partner with the MEP to engage the listed MEP assets and help deliver on the promise these assets hold for addressing workforce needs.

Download the Asset and Opportunity Mapping Tool


Asset and Opportunity Mapping Tool Image

Step 1) Your framing question
To begin this exercise, create a framing question that is broad enough to inspire many possibilities, but specific enough that you can generate concrete ideas. You can choose to simply work with the framing question provided on Slide 3, or generate one that is more tailored to the needs of your clients.

Step 2) Mapping readily available assets
Next, identify existing, readily available assets (these are assets that you are certain can be accessed and deployed for the partnership. Don’t include anything that requires going through a permission chain or is hoped-for (like funding) but not available. Do this on Slide 4 by deleting the boxes and filling in the assets on the table. Note that the different colors refer to different types of assets (See examples on Slide 5.)

Step 3) Creating strategic opportunities from existing assets
Now, look over the existing assets you’ve identified and think of ways you might combine 3 – 6 of these assets (drawing upon assets from both the MEP and the University) to create a strategic opportunity. Record this opportunity on Slide 6. Re-color the “stickies” to match the assets you’ve identified by type (network, skill/knowledge, physical, capital). Create a short title and description and complete the table at the bottom of Slide 6. Refer to examples on Slide 7.

Step 4) Creating stretch opportunities that require additional assets
If you would like to create an additional strategic opportunity, but one that requires additional assets (which means you won’t be able to get this opportunity underway immediately), use Slide 8 to do that.

Step 5) Developing an action plan
Now, create a short-term action plan for your strategic opportunity. The first column lists the names of everyone who can participate in advancing the opportunity. Identify milestones for each 30-day period. Assign actions to each person that can be done within a couple of hours each 30-day period. Use the Questions and Results column to record information that needs to be chased down, and key learnings related to each action. Refer to the examples on Slide 10.

Use Slide 11 to create a short-term action plan for your stretch opportunity, if you wish.

Framing Question: How might we increase the competitiveness of manufacturers in our region by helping them adopt new technologies?