As I type this, I’m surrounded by the ghosts of manufacturing’s past in Pittsburgh. This is where Andrew Carnegie built the steel company that he sold to J.P. Morgan to create U.S. Steel, and where Nikola Tesla consulted with George Westinghouse’s engineers on AC motors. This is also where public-private partnerships helped right the city’s economy after the U.S. steel industry collapsed in the 1980s. It was the perfect backdrop for a discussion on the future of U.S. manufacturing.
Michael F. Molnar, chief manufacturing officer, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and Director of the Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office, was one of the keynote speakers at the RAPID 2013 Conference and Exposition held last month in the Steel City. He said while the U.S. enjoyed its 100-year run as the world’s largest manufacturer, the rest of the world was focused on advanced manufacturing technologies.
Define and Conquer
What are advanced manufacturing technologies? According to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Report to the President on Ensuring American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing, it is “a family of activities that (a) depend on the use and coordination of information, automation, computation, software, sensing, and networking, and/or (b) make use of cutting edge materials and emerging capabilities enabled by the physical and biological sciences, for example nanotechnology, chemistry, and biology. This involves both new ways to manufacture existing products, and especially the manufacture of new products emerging from new advanced technologies.”
Molnar seemed to take a page out of Pittsburgh’s history as he discussed the need to bridge the gap between government funding of public research and private industry. To that end, the Obama Administration has launched competitions to create three new manufacturing innovation institutes with a Federal commitment of $200 million across five Federal agencies: Defense, Energy, Commerce, NASA, and the National Science Foundation. These institutes would build off what has been learned via the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) pilot. NAMII works with public and private entities with the goal of transforming the U.S. manufacturing sector.
“There is a gap between government and university ideas and private sector products,” said Edward Morris, the director of NAMII, who followed Molnar’s presentation at RAPID 2013. “NAMII is building a bridge across that gap.”
The Department of Defense will lead two of the new Institutes, focused on “Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation” and “Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing,” and the Department of Energy will be leading the third new institute on “Next Generation Power Electronics Manufacturing,” according to the White House.
The three new manufacturing innovation institutes will join NAMII in a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) as part of the Administration’s vision of 15 such institutes across the country. The President has requested Congress fund a one-time $1 billion investment to expand the network.
The Race is On
On the second day of the RAPID 2013 Conference and Exposition, additive manufacturing industry researcher and consultant, Terry Wohlers, provided some context to the country’s position in world of additive manufacturing (AM). Though AM is by no means the only type of advanced manufacturing technology, it is a high-profile segment that many countries are keen to dominate.
Wohlers, who recently returned from China, said the President’s call to action on advanced manufacturing was heard loudly and clearly there. He heard it mentioned a number of times on his trip. China’s central government is already funding AM to the tune of $245 million for a 7-year pilot program.
“One strategy the country may pursue is to buy its way in,” Wohlers said, to meet its goal to become the No. 1 country in the AM industry in the next three years.
History has a way of repeating itself, and advanced manufacturing initiatives seem poised to become this generation’s Space Race. But the initiatives mean more than bragging rights. As Pittsburgh’s resurgence in the last 30 years and NAMII’s initial success both illustrate, public-private partnerships can work. They require leadership from government, academia and private industry to succeed.
For more information, and to get involved, visit manufacturing.gov and namii.org.
Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.