We have all heard the phrase, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” In the case of the Interagency Network of Enterprise Assistance Providers (INEAP), “winning” is defined as creating successful partnerships working for the benefit of small businesses in the United States. INEAP was created to foster collaboration among the sometimes-viewed-as-disparate federal agencies and other entities tasked with improving the competiveness of US-based small business. At a meeting a few years ago, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) and the Center for Veterans Enterprise (CVE) at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) created just such a collaboration, knocking down a few of the lack-of-coordination stereotypes and combining their individual core competencies and connections to collaborate with the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in bringing new business opportunities to veteran-owned small businesses.
Elizabeth Torres, executive assistant in the VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization and an active participant in the INEAP, and her team from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had an idea in 2007 to increase the role played by veteran-owned businesses in the supply chain. The opportunity to build that idea into a program did not present itself until 2009, however, when NAVAIR received Congressional funding to increase the percentage of defense supply contracts met by veteran-owned (VOSB) and service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses (SDVOSB) in South Carolina and Colorado. NAVAIR knew that for meaningful work with veteran-owned businesses, they would need to call the Center for Veteran’s Enterprise at the VA, and a partnership was born. However, there was still a hole in the plan—NAVAIR and the CVE lacked a method for operationalizing the directive.
Ms. Torres brought the idea and the opportunity to an INEAP meeting where it was met with enthusiasm by members of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). Participants at this meeting realized that this collaboration truly represented INEAP’s core mission: assisting small businesses through collaborations and partnerships that enable more effective service delivery and implementation. Now known as the VetBiz Initiative for National Sustainment (VINS), the program is intended to help small manufacturers who are also veterans or service-disabled veterans small business owners become qualified suppliers to NAVAIR and the federal government.
NAVAIR needs suppliers for the parts and pieces required to operate naval aviation aircraft, weapons and systems, and also needs to increase the role veterans played in the supply chain for those parts. The Center for Veterans Enterprise’s mission is to promote veteran and service-disabled veteran business ownership, expansion, and participation in the federal marketplace. The MEP network of 60 centers nationwide provides assistance to American manufacturers to increase their competitiveness and, through the State centers, is able to form a bridge between NAVAIR and small manufacturers. Together, these three agencies had the needs and the knowledge to make their goals reality.
The VetBiz Initiative for National Sustainment (VINS)
Pilot supplier scouting programs are underway in the states of Colorado and South Carolina through two MEP centers, the Colorado Association for Manufacturing and Technology (CAMT) and the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (SCMEP). A much-simplified version of the process works like this: 1. NAVAIR identifies “critical need” parts. These are defined as those that have recurring quality issues, high prices based on a lack of government access to technical data (and therefore a lack of competition in the supply), issues of lead time requirements, or other problems with sourcing a supply. 2. MEP’s NIST office receives the information from NAVAIR and creates a synopsis of the technical and business issues associated with each item to communicate what is known as the “DOD Item Opportunity Synopses.” The synopses are then sent out to both CAMT and SCMEP. 3. CAMT and SCMEP locate VOSB and SDVOSB capable of “working” the critical need parts. This requires that the business be able to reverse engineer the part, which will lead to the production of both the part and the technical information behind its production. 4. CAMT and SCMEP help the companies become certified government contractors and thus qualified suppliers for the critical need part, and finally, 5. The businesses register with the CVE’s Vendor Information Pages (VIP) database, enabling NAVAIR and other federal contracting officers to easily find SDVOSBs and VOSBs who are eligible for procurement opportunities. In the end, this project leads to a series of wins for each agency involved, such as:
- NAVAIR obtains new suppliers of hard to find and difficult to source parts, creating a more reliable infrastructure for its weapons and systems.
- CVE is improving business opportunities for veteran-owned and service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses to enter the federal supply chain.
- MEP is helping small manufacturers grow and diversify their business streams.
Last, but certainly not least, the VOSB and SDVOSB businesses win. One successful example from this program involves the sourcing of the Heads-Up Display or “HUD” assembly used in the Navy’s T-45 Goshawk aircraft, a training aircraft for naval aviators. With the HUD assembly, instrument panels are projected onto the cockpit canopy, allowing pilots to view information “heads up” and looking forward at their usual viewpoints rather than having to look down for readings. Halfway through theT-45’s lifecycle, NAVAIR encountered difficulty in sourcing the HUD. Without a domestic supplier, each replacement HUD currently has a waiting period of 18 months, meaning a T-45 can be grounded for those 18 months waiting for the new part to arrive. The VINS identified a 100% veteran-owned, veteran-operated company in Colorado that is now working to reverse engineer the HUD and become a qualified supplier of the part.
These three federal agencies found a collaboration that enables them to fulfill their missions and it stemmed from one INEAP meeting. The ultimate beneficiaries of this successful partnership are the small and medium-sized veteran-owned businesses which now have a greater opportunity for supplying products to both NAVAIR and the federal government, ultimately increasing their business’ sales.