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SME is a Different Organization

August 14, 2004

Filed under: review — Terry Wohlers @ 14:28

In the 1980s, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers had 80,000 members. Today, SME has about 37,000 members. When membership was at its peak, individual members would frequently attend chapter meetings, conferences, and seminars conducted by SME, and would benefit from SME as a primary source of information. 

Times have changed. No longer does a manufacturing professional need to attend a program, buy a video, or subscribe to a publication to obtain the latest on a particular technology or subject related to manufacturing engineering. The Internet has made it possible to receive updated information at almost no cost from the comfort of an office or home. This has presented SME and other societies and associations with the challenge of offering something special to attract and retain members.

I have always strongly believed that one of the greatest benefits of belonging to an association, or attending a conference or meeting, is meeting people, strengthening relationships, and exploring opportunities for new business. Some of the same can be achieved with email correspondence, list servers, and Internet discussion groups, although to a much lesser extent.

SME knew that it needed to do something to engage and retain its members and attract new ones. That’s when it formed the Manufacturing Enterprise Council (MEC) in 2000 to study the problem and propose a solution. The MEC has since helped SME “renovate” its association and membership structure through a major reorganization. SME’s 12 associations, including the Rapid Prototyping Association (RPA/SME), are currently being transformed into the relatively new Technical Community Network, launched in 2001, that consists of seven umbrella groups called communities. One of them is the Rapid Technologies & Additive Manufacturing Community, the new home for RPA/SME members.

When I first heard about the new structure, I was unsure about the steps that SME was taking. RPA/SME is near and dear to my heart, having been a part of it from the beginning. As I asked questions and learned more about the Technical Community Network, it became clear to me that the old association structure had served a useful purpose, but it was time for retirement. The society desperately needed to find ways to involve members and add value to being involved.  

The leaders of each technical community are forming tech groups that focus on special interests and technical subjects. These tech groups are becoming a vital part of the new structure. Members and non-members participate in them through conference calls, live meetings, and email discussions. For example, the Rapid Tooling Tech Group is in the process of creating software that will help individuals select the best tooling solution for a particular problem. Manufacturing professionals are getting involved because they can see that real problems are being addressed and solutions are underway.

It’s too early to know whether the Technical Community Network will boost SME’s membership numbers to levels of the past. To date, the results are encouraging. The society is engaging far more members than it had prior to the change, although it’s not yet known exactly how successful the new structure will become. Some 47 tech groups have developed or are under development within the seven technical communities. This, alone, is impressive. To learn more, or to join one of them, go to and click on “Technical Communities” found in the blue navigation area.