By Jamie J. Gooch
Innovation is an overused term. It’s tossed about to describe everything from mops to robots. But it’s easier said than done, as a recent report to President Obama written by some of the top minds in the country indicates.
The report to the President titled “Ensuring American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing” was submitted by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in June. The council includes some impressive names from Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Microsoft and, perhaps most famously, Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. Their assessment: “We cannot remain the world’s engine of innovation without manufacturing activity,” according to the report.
There are many reasons for the loss of U.S. manufacturing leadership and jobs. Lower wages abroad that tempted companies to build factories on foreign shores is often the scapegoat, but the report refutes this as the primary cause, citing gains in the manufacturing sectors of Germany and Japan as the U.S. manufacturing sector fell behind. The real reason? A lack of support for U.S. innovation.
One of the council’s recommendations was to create an initiative to support advanced manufacturing via researching new technologies, creating public-private partnerships and developing design methodologies and shared technology infrastructures.
Acting on the Proposal
The President apparently agreed with PCAST’s recommendation, because on June 24 he launched the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) by announcing more than $500 million in investments in advanced manufacturing technologies.
“Today, I’m calling for all of us to come together — private sector industry, universities, and the government — to spark a renaissance in American manufacturing and help our manufacturers develop the cutting-edge tools they need to compete with anyone in the world,” said President Obama. “With these key investments, we can ensure that the United States remains a nation that ‘invents it here and manufactures it here’ and creates high-quality, good paying jobs for American workers.”
Those “key investments” will indeed be critical if $500 million is going to have an impact on the $81 billion trade deficit in advanced technology manufactured products. Most of the investments are earmarked for manufacturing that is important to national security, followed by $120 million to develop energy-efficient manufacturing processes and $100 million to discover, develop, manufacture and deploy advanced materials. Next-generation robotics is also on the short list, garnering $70 million to create robots that will work closely with human operators.
Collaborate to Innovate
At DE, we have reported on the evolving trend of engineers from various backgrounds working more closely with each other, with colleagues from other departments, and with partners from other companies to streamline the design-to-market process. Technologies such as product lifecycle management, social networking, simulation and rapid technologies have allowed the concept-design-analyze-build-market chain to work more efficiently. The parallels between building such innovation on a company-wide scale and a nationwide scale are obvious.
The AMP plan provides the means to bring together major U.S. manufacturers with high-profile U.S. engineering universities and government agencies to rebuild an efficient chain linking research and manufacturing. Over the last two decades, the focus on nurturing the new information technology economy took too much emphasis away from the industrial manufacturing economy that made the United States the world’s leading producer of manufactured goods from 1895 through 2009.
As the “Ensuring American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing” report puts it: “A strong manufacturing sector that adapts to and develops new technologies is vital to ensure ongoing U.S. leadership in innovation, because of the synergies created by locating production processes and design processes near to each other.”
Research and development needs local manufacturing to turn ideas into innovative realities. AMP may not be enough to turn the tide alone, but it’s an important first step.
It’s also a model that can be adopted on any scale. Like a basic CAD model shared among engineers and tweaked to meet different needs, it can be replicated at state and local levels, modified as needed and deployed. What academic institutions and local government agencies can your company work with to support a local infrastructure of innovation?
Jamie J. Gooch is the managing editor of DE. Send comments about this subject to firstname.lastname@example.org.