Talking Trends with Thomas™

Cathy Ma, Vice President of Platform Growth and Engagement at Thomas, is a driving force behind the company’s Industrial Survey Reports and COVID-19 Response System, which is helping manufacturers and distributors of personal protective equipment (PPE) reach buyers. In New York State, NY MEP is working with ThomasNet to identify NYS companies who can supply PPE. 


Steve Melito: Hey, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Melito. And today we have a very special guest, Cathy Ma from Thomas. Cathy, how are you?

Cathy Ma: I’m great. Thank you for having us here today.

Steve Melito: You’re most welcome. So Cathy, you’re the Vice President of Platform Growth and Engagement, so a lot about manufacturing.

Cathy Ma: I hope so. Let’s find out today together, shall we?

Steve Melito: All right, sounds good. So for starters, I know what Thomasnet is, I am on it all the time, but what is Thomas, the company? What do you do, and how do you help manufacturers do their jobs?

Cathy Ma: Great question. So Thomas, in one sentence, we power the growth of North American manufacturing. How do we do that? We have And on the platform we have over 560, 000 manufacturers from Canada and the USA. So our key role is to ensure that industrial buyers get to find the right suppliers to deliver their briefs. And we’ve been around for over 123 years, originated from New York City, family- owned. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, we really realized the importance of our business in terms of our ability to connect buyers and manufacturers with 10 times the speed. So it’s been a really interesting two years. I mean, has it been two years? No, one year. Sorry. COVID years, one year is like two years, isn’t it?

Steve Melito: It is. It’s a year that has felt much longer. So Thomas is a New York state company in New York City. I remember when there were the old Thomas Register books. You’re a little bit younger, so that was before your time. The website is fantastic. How many manufacturers do you have listed? It’s a tremendous number.

Cathy Ma: Yeah. Over 560, 000 manufacturers from Canada and the USA alone. And more than that, we actually have over 170 structured data points. So when you come onto Thomasnet. com, you can register for free on our platform, then you can search, evaluate, and connect with all the suppliers. What’s interesting is when you do procurement and sourcing, you understand that it’s very powerful to be able to see, say, when the companies were founded, the estimated revenue range, their capabilities, the product and the brands that they carry. We have all that structured data on our platform. In addition, you may sometimes want to promote lean manufacturing and find a supplier within your state or close to you. We also allow you to refine your search results based on radius of their service capability. So in a way, I think it really saves you about 30 clicks for every search with the generic search engines.

Steve Melito: For sure. Yeah, it’s a great tool. Now what are you seeing these days in terms of sourcing trends on Thomas? One of the things I like is I get a newsletter from you and it tells me what people are looking for.

Cathy Ma: Great question. So what’s incredible about the start of this year is that we published the State of North American Manufacturing report. With this report, we actually surveyed over 400 manufacturers to get a feel of what they’re going through. But more than that, we also factored in the first quarter data from 2021 by industry to really get a sense of where the industry is going, because of all the supply chain disruption from COVID- 19. The number one thing that shocked me, Steve, is that 83% of manufacturer indicate that they’re likely to extremely likely going to bring on at least one North American manufacturing or supplier. And that’s up by 54% same time last year. So the interest in reshoring is very high. So that’s the number one factor. Now, the other aspect of it is in the survey, we actually got the median and the average contract spend in manufacturing. A lot of people were talking about when it comes to manufacturing, we have the biggest economic multiplier across the other industry, which means that for $ 1 invested, you get the most amount of return on investment. I actually have the number of the average contract size per sector as well. So when you factor that in, if four in five US manufacturers really are going to bring onboard one domestic manufacturer, it’s going to inject $ 443 billion into our economy in the next 12 months. So it is all very exciting, Steve.

Steve Melito: It’s exciting times, for sure. And those numbers really make it real beyond just the anecdotal that we hear that everybody seems to be reshoring. Well, it almost is everybody. It’s north of 80% right there doing that. So tell me a little bit about ITAC. They are the New York City MEP center. And I believe that Thomasnet worked with ITAC on something of a PPE program a while back.

Cathy Ma: Yeah, so let’s go back in time on my time machine. When it comes to what happened Q1 last year, I think everyone has a different version of the same story. So a little bit about me, you can tell them my accent’s a little bit funny. It may remind people of either Monty Python or Harry Potter. So I was born and raised in Hong Kong, but spent my adult life in London. And so I had the bit of background in understanding how things are made in Asia as well as Europe, now in North America. But what is interesting is supply chain data today is so easily for us to reach wherever you are in the world. So last January, I was actually in Hong Kong and Tokyo, traveling with my family. And before I even realized, all of my family members were sending us messages about, ” Hey, can you get some masks?” I was like, ” Okay, this is really odd,” because in Hong Kong we had a culture of wearing masks, and Hong Kong is the hub of international logistics. So it’s almost like saying that Hong Kong is running out of clean water to say that we don’t have enough PPE. And then that’s the moment when I actually grabbed my phone. I just try to take a look at Amazon US or Walmart, all of those, CVS supply chain, consumer- facing outlet. And even by January, everything was already sold out. So I came back to the US and self- quarantined, setting the trend in January, February, not seeing anyone for two weeks. But the key thing is once you’re locked in a house, you have time to really look at data. And we noticed on Thomas there were a lot of irregular sourcing activities, to a point not just first tier PPE, but also second tier raw material supplies like cloth and chemicals, special types of polypropylene materials and machinery. So our whole organization, by March when Tom Hanks and NBA shut everything, we’re like, “Okay, this is important. We need to figure out a way to quickly mobilize the industry.” So because Thomas has a relationship with over a million North American manufacturers, overnight, we sent a digital flare and ask everyone, ” Do you have enough supply? Do you have the capability to pivot? Would you like to help?” To my surprise, over 3, 000 manufacturers jumped in, volunteered to either speed things up or procure on behalf of government agency to speed everything up and do more for the community of first responders. So that’s a moment when we got introduced to New York MEP and ITAC. And turned out there are many New York state- based manufacturers who are trying to do the same thing. So we invited all these amazing manufacturers to be part of Thomas COVID-19 response system. I’ll give you some amazing statistic. So in the last 12 months, there are over 2 million page views across our COVID-19 response system. Our data showed us that we have many government agencies, but also nonprofits and hospital, successfully delivering their sourcing briefs just by reaching out to North American suppliers. And even more amazingly, the Department of Homeland Security got in touch retrospectively as well to try to talk to our manufacturers to understand supply chain disruption and how they could actually better consolidate our supply chain capability for important priorities such as PPE and by telling you the story of how great it is to work with ITAC and New York MEP, there are actually a multitude of entrepreneurs, some in Texas as well, in creating their own version of PPE supplies to fill in the gap. And there is a customer of Thomas that’s been around with us for decades, and he told us, ” I’ve been calling other hospitals and government groups and no one returned my call. The moment you, Thomas, listed me on your supply system, I have government agency and hospitals calling me and the next day, I was actually supplying PPE at cost to the Metropolitan Museum of the Arts. And without you guys being the matchmaker, there is no way we can relate our capability, and that people trust your platform.” Because actually we do have a bunch of engineers working around the clock, including the weekend, validating the data. So long story short, orphanages and charities from around the world also benefited from our system. And I just want to thank everyone on the call or on the podcast if you’re involved or if you haven’t heard of us, in just being part of manufacturing, because we make things to make the world a better place.

Steve Melito: Absolutely. Now Cathy, you are a VP. At the VP level, oftentimes people are hard to get ahold of, but I was able to get ahold of you, and I was thrilled to do so. And I remember it was because I responded to a cybersecurity email that you had sent out. You had a big event recently. Can you tell us about that event, because cybersecurity’s a hot topic?

Cathy Ma: Absolutely. So first of all, Steve, I just want to give you a big kudos. So Steve and I chatted about the fact that you guys are creating a program for New York state manufacturers to be able to sign up to get certified for cybersecurity so that you can continue to manufacture for the Department of Defense. Now the truth is, a lot of manufacturers, I’d say over 43% on our platform, I can see are small to medium micromanufacturers, as in with less than 1 million annual revenue per year. And together, this group of manufacturers contribute massively to our economy. Now, but to think about the fact that if your annual revenue is below, I’ll even say, $ 10 million, it’s really hard to get dedicated resources or find a go- to person to help you take care of all these cybersecurity hygiene things. What can they be? For example, do you have the right policy to make sure that every staff in your organization would log in not using shared explicit passwords, or that even better, they have double authentication, you might need to grab your cell phone to generate an extra code, or does your company even have virtual private network so it’s harder for hackers to jump onto your wifi network to steal your customer data? I think historically, we don’t really have a very consistent system or structural process to enable all of these manufacturers to upskill to a level of comfortable security. Let’s put it this way. It is great that NIST now has a standard and is investing in the industry. But I do think the premise of Thomas for the last 123 years, really, is we try to fill the gap as much as we can in education and advocacy. So to be able to connect our suppliers, at no cost to them, to reliable and informed experts in the sector to let them at least know what they need to know that they may not know, is a really excellent first step, Steve. And I would also say cybersecurity is just one facet of digital and technological enablement. There are other aspects when it comes to, is your company digitally enabled, for example? Does your shop even have ethernet wifi- enabled capability? Are you connecting your machines to any realtime system? What about interoperability of your manufacturing process and realtime data about, say for example, your inventory or your logistical supply network? Are you being blocked? Is your container being stuck at the port? I think I really empathize with a lot of the smaller manufacturers that all those technologies are at our fingertips, but you know what they say about the future, the future is here, it is just unequally distributed. And I think one thing that we are very passionate about is to democratize the future and help more manufacturer get access to it.

Steve Melito: Absolutely. And many thanks for the kind words about what New York MEP is doing. And part of our mission, well, our entire mission, is to help small to medium manufacturers grow and thrive. And one of the challenges that they’re facing is trying to become a cyber secure. And really appreciate the work that Thomas is also doing in this area. So where do you think US manufacturing’s going to be in five years? If you could break out your crystal ball, what do you think that we’d be talking about in five years from now?

Cathy Ma: I really love this question. So that actually allows me to circle back to the manufacturing report that I mentioned at the beginning of this call. What I’m seeing is there are a lot of activities around addictive … sorry, additive. I always say ” addictive manufacturing.” It’s additive manufacturing.

Steve Melito: Manufacturing is addictive, right?

Cathy Ma: It is addictive. Also, additive manufacturing itself is addictive, because of how quickly it is transforming. So from the supply chain data we can see on Thomas, there are an inordinate amount of increase in interest when it comes to additive manufacturing or 3D printing powder supply, be it plastic- based or metal- based. The other aspect of it which is really interesting is we heard about the government talking about the China competition bill. There’s a lot of renewed interest in really doubling down on investing in core supply chain areas. And the four big areas are advanced packaging, semiconductor high capacity batteries, and medical- related chemicals and core supply chain considerations. So I can talk about New York state, but also nationally, I think we may see a very interesting resurge of what we coin as … I mean, there are academics that talk about the concept of industrial commons, where you will see by geographic positioning, we should see a reemergence of the need for skilled labor, whereas (inaudible) short of skilled … What do we call that? Instead of a white collar … Yeah, new collar. So we are looking for around 600, 000 young people or equipped people entering the industry that has a bit of technical know- how, programmatic skills, they love learning about machine learning robotics, but also they might have that engineering nerdiness in them, in the most positive way. We need more people like that from diverse backgrounds, because why do we cut our pool by half or by a third? That doesn’t make sense. So in short, I’m very passionate about this. I think the future is that we’ll see an inordinate amount of investment into technologically enabled manufacturing processes, but there will be a strategic focus on where we need in the future. And I’ll emphasize the importance of getting high capacity chips and semiconductors supply chain out of Asia, not being political here. The truth is, over actually a whole 100% of advanced manufacturing chips are made in Asia. Over 70% is done by one company in Taiwan, the rest by Samsung. So if you think about security for this country, but also know- how development, it is really high time for us to brought back a lot of the capability and it’s exciting, Steve, because if you think about a young person out there today, they either could go into STEM sector work for the Facebook, the Google, or they could go into banking, or they work in service industry. But the truth is, manufacturing jobs have really amazing median to average entry level salary. But also, the whole concept is different. It’s no longer elbow grease. It’s really about intellectual plus physical know- how combined together. I’m excited for the future.

Steve Melito: I’m glad to hear that, because you know the data. Cathy, we’re very honored to have had you here today. We’ve been talking to Cathy Ma from Thomas, who’s the Vice President of Platform Growth and Engagement there. And you’re listening to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub, the statewide manufacturing extension partnership center for New York State and if you’re listening to this podcast and you’re in the Empire State and you’re a manufacturer or maybe an inventor or an entrepreneur and you have a business or a tactical challenge, FuzeHub would like to talk to you. And the way to do it is simple. You can go to our website, day or night, www. fuzehub. com, look for the homepage. You’ll wind up there anyway. And ask to speak to an expert. There’s a big blue button on our brand new website with that label. So on behalf of FuzeHub, New York MEP, and New York State Manufacturing Now, this is Steve Melito, signing off.

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