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.

"Business owners usually call a center when they have a problem with quality or overall output," said Carr. "We go in and look for the bottlenecks in their process and see where things could be streamlined."

There is no fee for the initial assessment, but if the company decides to go further with the recommendations, they do pay a consulting fee based on the specific project.

"We don't just target a specific machine that could be improved, we look at the total picture, the whole process, and the entire enterprise as it exists in a supply chain," Carr explained.

According to Carr, most MEP clients need help figuring out what to buy to improve their manufacturing process.

"Clients come to us saying, 'I need to buy something that does this, but I don't know which one to get or where to buy it,'" said Carr.

Thanks to help from the MEP, more than 50 percent of Sassy Scrubs' sales now come from the Web site. Piontkowski still works at home. She has 18 other employees working from their own homes, making 300 to 400 suit pieces a week at a rate of $6 an hour.

"It's very rewarding for me to see so many people able to work from home because I would've liked to do that after I had my surgery," said Piontkowski. "I want to keep it a cottage industry, although I can foresee the day when we will have to build a plant."

Going to the dogs

Many businesswomen become manufacturers based on a home-based hobby. Melissa Trombley took a recipe she had for all-natural dog biscuits and launched a small manufacturing business last year.

"For 18 years, I'd been making these biscuits for our dogs in my kitchen," said Trombley, president of The Barking Bakers Inc., based in Syracuse, N.Y. "Then, I realized that there's probably a market for this, so I rented some space in a commercial bakery and started churning out 1,300 biscuits a day."

Trombley went to an NIST affiliate, the Technology Development Organization in Syracuse, N.Y., when she needed more production capability.

"I didn't want to buy the equipment to produce a huge amount of biscuits," said Trombley. "So they helped me find a good alternative in outsourcing."

Trombley now relies on workers managed by the Association of Retarded Citizens to help her bake biscuits in their commercial kitchen.

"They learn skills that they can take out into the community to become productive citizens," said Trombley. "I get help with the baking."

Trombley sells her biscuits in grocery stores in five states; a box of 15 biscuits costs $5.99. She eventually plans to have her own production facility. The TDO continues to provide her free research assistance with her next idea producing a biscuit cart (like a hot dog stand) to sell dog biscuits in parks.

"I'm trying to license the cart and the biscuits to county parks as a service they can provide to their community," said Trombley. "If I could sell it to Central Park, I'd be making millions."

For more information on the MEP program visit www.nist.gov.

Reporting by Julie Neal. Jane Applegate is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is founder of ApplegateWay.com, a multimedia Web site for busy entrepreneurs. She can be reached via e-mail at jane@janeapplegate.com.

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