The best way to transform the manufacturing industry, re-establish the U.S. as a leader in manufacturing and create new jobs, according to President Obama, is to create a network of independent, public-private manufacturing institutes. Key companies, federal agencies, universities and other academic and training institutes will work together to accelerate development and adoption of cutting-edge manufacturing technology, as part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI).
The President asked Congress to spend up to $1 billion over the course of the next several years to invest in multiple institutes in order to spur economic growth, create new jobs and start a renaissance in American manufacturing and global competitiveness. Four regional manufacturing institutes have been established thus far, with four more institutes coming this year. In July 2013, the President further proposed building out the initial network to encompass 45 institutes for manufacturing innovation over 10 years.
“There is innovation and technology transformation occurring in manufacturing all over the country, but it’s happening in pockets,” said Jason Harris, interim corporate development and communications director of UI Labs. “It’s somewhat isolated and siloed at the moment. We see today in manufacturing that an OEM will have its own supply chain, creating products in that supply chain. There’s not a lot of free access to competition, not a lot of crowdsourcing of solutions for everybody to gain. We’re going to try to democratize this supply chain. We want to create one technology platform that everybody can have access to.”
Rebranded as America Makes, this was the first institute to be launched, in August 2012. The nonprofit National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining is leading this consortium, which includes manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges and nonprofit organizations from the Ohio-Pennsylvania West Virginia “Tech Belt.”
Additive manufacturing, often referred to as 3-D printing, is a way of making products and components from a digital model, and is being applied in a wide range of industries, including defense, aerospace, automotive, medical and metals manufacturing. Additive manufacturing enables shorter lead times, mass customization, reduced parts count, more complex shapes, parts on demand, less material waste, and lower life-cycle energy use.
In its first year, America Makes funded seven research and development projects and began developing an industry-driven technology investment strategy that builds upon previous technology roadmaps. The consortium also developed plans for education and workforce training and outreach.
In January 2014, the government announced North Carolina State University as the headquarters of the Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute. The North Carolina consortium consists of 18 companies and six universities partnering with the Department of Energy. The new institute will provide shared facilities, equipment and testing, and modeling capabilities to companies across the power electronics supply chain, particularly small- and medium-size manufacturers, to help invent, design and manufacture new semiconductor chips and devices, according to a White House press release.
Last week, the President announced the winning team, Detroit-based EWI, to lead the LM3I Institute, which will focus on ultra-light and ultra-strong materials to improve the performance, enhance the safety and boost the energy and fuel efficiency of vehicles and machines. EWI brings together a consortium of leading companies that include some of the world’s aluminum, titanium and high-strength steel manufacturers, leading materials providers and critical end-users with universities on the cutting-edge of technology development and research.
Also last week, the White House announced the selection of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (dubbed the Digital Lab) headquarters. The winning consortium is Chicago-based UI Labs, which brings together more than 70 industry, university, government and community partners. This institute will address the lifecycle of digital data interchanged among myriad design, engineering, manufacturing and maintenance systems, and flowing across a networked supply chain. Three areas of focus include advanced manufacturing enterprise, intelligent machining and advanced analysis, Harris said.
“We also see a huge opportunity for retraining the workforce,” he added. “You’ve got workers today doing manual labor in manufacturing plants. Eventually technology is going to replace that, and that’s a good thing because those workers are going to get retrained to be smarter about data, decisions and become closer to the solutions.”
Upcoming Institute of Manufacturing Innovation
President Obama has announced a new competition for an Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation Institute aimed to improve the manufacturing of advanced fiber-reinforced polymer composites at the production speed, cost and performance needed for widespread use in clean energy products. Such products include fuel-efficient and electric vehicles, wind turbines and hydrogen and natural gas storage tanks.