As part of a new IMT Career Journal series highlighting specific initiatives aimed at helping U.S. manufacturers and workers create good jobs, we look at the Obama administration’s recent launch of a competitive process to create three new manufacturing innovation institutes. These geographically dispersed institutes will leverage the particular strengths of their region and bring together businesses, institutions of higher learning, and government agencies to address a variety of critical needs to U.S. global leadership in manufacturing.
U.S. manufacturing competitiveness faces numerous challenges, among them being the gap between R&D activities and commercial deployment of technological innovations. Technology is constantly evolving, meaning American businesses, industries, and local economies must adapt to keep up if they are to remain competitive and boost the nation’s competitiveness.
It is this multifaceted challenge that drove the Obama administration last month to launch competitions to create three new advanced manufacturing innovation institutes with a commitment of $200 million from five federal agencies.
In partnership with the Department of Commerce, NASA, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) will lead two of the institutes, while the Department of Energy (DOE) will lead the third institute:
- Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation, led by the DOD, will develop novel, modeling-based design methodologies, virtual manufacturing tools, and sensor- and robotics-based manufacturing networks to accelerate innovation in digital manufacturing;
- Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing, also led by the DOD, will attempt to spur reductions in manufacturing and energy costs for products such as wind turbines, medical devices, engines, and vehicles by scaling up research in advanced lightweight metals;
- Next-Generation Power Electronics Manufacturing, led by the DOE, will employ wide-band-gap semiconductor technology to develop compact, high-efficiency power sources for electric vehicles, renewable power interconnection, industrial-scale variable speed drive motors, and more.
To remain ahead of the global competitiveness curve, data indicate that the U.S. would be better positioned by embracing an innovation network that promotes collaboration between all stakeholders, in both public and private sectors. For instance, a first-of-its-kind report by General Electric in 2011 outlined a new landscape for innovation in the 21st century that places a greater priority on addressing local needs, marshals in the creativity of individuals and smaller organizations, and forges strategic partnerships.
“Even as we’re working to reverse the trend of communities that have been hard hit with old manufacturing leaving, we’ve got to propose partnerships with local leaders in manufacturing communities to help attract new investment in the infrastructure and the research that will attract new jobs and new businesses, so that communities that have been knocked down can get back up and get back on their feet,” President Barack Obama said in a speech last month, announcing the launch of the new institutes.
Given that the three new institutes will be led by the DOD and the DOE and funded by existing authorities, they will focus on crosscut manufacturing technologies that address critical national security and energy needs.
“Each institute would serve as a regional hub designed to bridge the gap between basic research and product development, bringing together companies, universities and community colleges, and federal agencies to co-invest in technology areas that encourage investment and production in the U.S.,” an announcement stated. “This type of innovation infrastructure provides a unique ‘teaching factory’ that allows for education and training of students and workers at all levels, while providing the shared assets to help companies, most importantly small manufacturers, access the cutting-edge capabilities and equipment to design, test, and pilot new products and manufacturing processes.”
The efforts mark another step in the progress of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a linked network of 15 institutes around the country that are part of Obama’s plan to boost the U.S. manufacturing sector. The NNMI will be regional hubs of manufacturing excellence to help the manufacturers around them be more competitive and willing to invest in new technology. Each hub will leverage its particular area’s strengths and band together public and private stakeholders.
The three institutes will build off the success of the first institute, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII). In August 2012, the Obama administration announced the winner of an initial $30 million federal award to create the pilot institute, which is headquartered in Youngstown, Ohio. The grant goes to providing the infrastructure needed to support new additive manufacturing technologies and products and become a global center of excellence for 3D printing.
NAMII was selected from amongst a dozen teams from around the country that applied for the award. The partnership was led by the DOD, which awarded the initial $30 million in federal funding that was matched by $40 million from the winning consortium of manufacturing firms, higher-education institutions, and nonprofit organizations primarily from the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia “tech belt.”
Like NAMII, all three new institutes will be selected through an open, competitive process led by the DOE and DOD, with a review by a multi-agency team of technical experts. The DOD and DOE opened the competition for the three new institutes, and the winning teams will be selected and announced later this year. Federal funds will be matched by industry co-investment, support by state and local governments, and other sources.
And as with NAMII, the three new institutes are expected to become financially self-sustaining. A plan to achieve this objective will be a critical evaluation criterion in the selection process.
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