Ernie Renner is one of a rare breed of government bureaucrat -- one that is welcomed by businessmen.
As director of the Best Manufacturing Practices (BMP) Center of Excellence in College Park, Mr. Renner's mission is to scout out the best methods used by American industry, write them up and then distribute the information to thousands of other manufacturing operations through booklets and an electronic database available to anyone with a computer and a modem.
With a 20-person staff, the operation acts like an industrial honeybee, picking up information pollen from one factory flower and spreading it to other plants. The only difference is that the flower gets to decide which nuggets of information are let loose.
"We go out and find out what industry is doing well," Mr. Renner said. "It's a national resource to help them [manufacturers] become more competitive."
Created by the Navy 10 years ago to help its contractors perform better, the relatively obscure agency has gradually expanded its scope to include all Defense Department contractors and now the "entire U.S. industrial base," according to Mr. Renner.
Starting with only one employee -- Mr. Renner -- and a $50,000 budget, BMP has expanded to a $4 million-a-year program. It has also created a partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to distribute the data through its outlets, and the University of Maryland, which is developing an engineering curriculum that would incorporate BMP's information.
It is shedding some of its obscurity this month with a celebration of its 10th anniversary at the University of Maryland Inn and Conference Center Wednesday, where it will present its first annual award for manufacturing excellence. In turn, BMP will receive awards from the White House Office of Science and Technology and the Aerospace Industries Association.
Part of the reason for this unaccustomed fanfare, which includes hiring a Connecticut public relations firm, is the desire to survive congressional budget slashing.
"That's part of it," Mr. Renner conceded. "Downsizing, it's a fact of life."
But another reason is to get more companies to use the agency's database, which contains more than 2,000 ideas on topics ranging from better soldering to management methods that have been applied to military housing.
"There's a lot of information in here that can help companies," Mr. Renner said.
Already, BMP's database is getting 2,000 inquires a month.
One company that has benefited from the program is Hamilton Standard, an aviation equipment company based in Connecticut. A subsidiary of the giant United Technologies Corp., Hamilton Standard has $1 billion in sales annually. One of its products is a spacesuit used in the U.S. space program.
Starting in 1989, the company used BMP's data to compare its practices with other corporations, or to "benchmark," as it is known in industrial circles. This and other efforts helped to turn around the company's manufacturing operation, according to Stephen Pavlech, manager of technology planning and deployment.
"The benchmark provided us the road map for the turnaround," Mr. Pavlech said. "They do a tremendous amount of good for industry and they really leverage the limited resources that they have."
BMP is also a refreshing change from other government agencies with its focus on the positive rather than the negative, according to Richard L. Engwall, manager of advanced manufacturing initiatives at Westinghouse's Electronic Systems Group near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
In 1989, a group of about five people from BMP did a weeklong survey of the Westinghouse operation, particularly citing its development and application of computer software.
"The best thing about BMP is that it gets you thinking about what you're good at from an infrastructure point of view in building products for your customers," Mr. Engwall said.
In its 10 years, BMP has surveyed 80 operations, ranging from Raytheon's missile systems division in Andover, Mass., to the public schools in Stafford County, Va. In all the surveys, the BMP found a slate of best practices that it writes up in a booklet that is distributed to its mailing list of 5,000 and then put in its computer database.
The surveys are done gingerly, revealing only what the subject company wants to disclose and then usually only the results, not the actual methods. But the booklets also contain a contact person from the company for further information.
And while the survey teams, which often come from other government agencies, give advice on how to solve problems they find, they do not publicize them. BMP also does not snitch on the companies to other government agencies they may be working for.
"If we go back and report, we're not going into any more companies," Mr. Renner said.
HOW TO ACCESS BMPNET
The BMPnet can be accessed via the Internet or a special modem program. To obtain the modem program, call the BMPnet using a VT-100/200 terminal emulator set to 8,N,1. Dial (703) 538-7697 for 2,400 baud modems and (703) 538-7267 for 9,600 baud and 14.4kb modems. When asked for a user profile, PC users type DOWNPC and Macintosh users type DOWNMAC to start the download of the program. Call back using this program to access all BMPnet functions.
The General User account is:
USER PROFILE BMPnet
USER I.D.: BMP
For information on the Internet, or if you experience any difficulty using the BMPnet, call the hot line at (703) 538-7253. WWW (World Wide Web) access is WWW.BMPCOE.ORG.