After surgery, Peggy Piontkowski spent four years being a stay-at-home mom with a disability. One day, her daughter came home complaining about the stiff and scratchy scrub suits she had to wear in nursing school.

"She asked me to make her a scrub suit, and at that moment, I had the whole company vision," said Piontkowski, president and founder of Sassy Scrubs, a company based in North Syracuse, N.Y. that designs scrub suits for real-life doctors and nurses, as well as for actors like George Clooney on the TV show "ER."

Piontkowski relied on technical help from a little-known government program to get her company's online sales effort off the ground. The Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md., has a $104.2 million budget this year to help business owners around the United States.

"Women don't usually start out with an idea to make something like automotive parts," said Kevin Carr, director of the MEP. "They just end up in manufacturing because their product got so popular they were forced to mass produce it."

MEP's federally funded centers provide technical assistance and consulting services to all sorts of small manufacturers. It appears to be money well spent. A survey of 4,551 MEP client companies reported an increase in total revenues of $294 million and savings of $20 million in inventory based on the services provided by NIST MEP.

While many people think only big corporations make things, small companies supplying parts and equipment accounted for 55 percent of the value-added content of finished products, according to government research.

Learning more about manufacturing and online sales has helped Sassy Scrubs compete with much bigger companies. Piontkowski went to the Central New York Technology Development Organization in Syracuse, an NIST affiliate, when she decided to sell products on the Internet.

"They helped us register the name Cyberscrubs," said Piontkowski. "Now, I rely on them to create more marketing and development strategies."

Scrutinizing systems

Sassy Scrubs recently introduced scrub jackets made from fleece and printed corduroy. Each scrub suit piece sells for between $25 and $50, said Piontkowski, whose 10-year-old company now posts annual revenues of $1 million.

"I didn't invent the scrub suit, I just made it better by taking out all the things that would drive me crazy about wearing a uniform," said Piontkowski.

MEP's Carr said the program helps business owners adopt the best manufacturing business practices to minimize costs. It also promotes new and better methods to mass-produce products.

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