President Obama, in his State of the Union address, said things that had the advanced-technology community buzzing. He talked about 3D printing, mapping the human brain, drugs to regenerate damaged organs, and new material that will make batteries ten times more powerful. He said, “Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.” That’s music to a futurist’s ears.
Obama also announced three new manufacturing research hubs as part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) initiative. He asked Congress to help create a network of 15 such hubs to “guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made right here in America.”
Government-sponsored innovation efforts usually miss the mark, but this one seems to be surprisingly well-conceived. The U.S. manufacturing renaissance that is already happening needs all the help it can get. The question that popped into my mind while listening to the President’s speech is, why are we debating this issue — why aren’t we launching a Manhattan Project-style initiative to bring manufacturing back to U.S. shores. This is a trillion-dollar market opportunity that can boost the U.S. economy, create many high-paying jobs, and increase the country’s global advantage.
As I wrote in my column predicting the innovations for 2013, robots are rapidly changing the cost-benefit of manufacturing goods in the U.S. But who or what is working in the factory is just as important as where the factory is. Locating manufacturing next to engineering fuels innovation and even produces cost advantages.
GE found that it could profitably manufacture appliances once again at Appliance Park in Louisville, Ky., by automating its production lines. It saw great synergy in having its engineers and plant managers work side by side. Tesla is building its electric car, the Model S, in Fremont, Calif. and Apple recently announced its intention to start manufacturing computers in the United States again.
But there’s a snag to bringing more manufacturing jobs back to the United States. Entire supply chains are now located in China and elsewhere abroad, creating a chicken-and-egg problem. It is also very hard to find workers with the skills needed to operate and maintain sophisticated computer-based equipment. And large capital investments are required in order to set up manufacturing plants. This is where the government can help: by retraining the workforce and helping businesses with new factory setup.
Even as robots are beginning to disrupt traditional assembly-style manufacturing, other technologies are being developed that will, in the next decade, put the robots out of business.
New materials such as carbon nanotubes and ceramic-matrix nanocomposites (and their metal-matrix and polymer-matrix equivalents) are enabling designers to create products that are stronger, lighter, more energy-efficient and more durable. And there is 3D printing, which promises to change the process of manufacturing itself. Rather than producing products with power-driven machine tools that physically remove material, the new “additive manufacturing” produces goods by melting successive layers of materials based on 3D models-adding materials rather than subtracting them. This allows manufacturers to create complex objects without any tools or fixtures-“laser printing” goods rather than assembling them.
More research to accelerate the creation of advanced materials and to standardize the processes, materials, and equipment for additive manufacturing is needed. The most critical need, however, is for the university lab-to-industry pathway be unclogged. These are all within the scope of NNMI, but the plan as it is has incredibly long time horizons and relatively small amounts of funding. The government expects to invest $70-$120 million over a five- to seven-year time frame in each of the 15 hubs that it launches over the next two to three years. This is a drop in the ocean for the trillion-dollar market opportunity.