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Disruptive innovation requires more than prototypes and patents. Companies need cost-effective access to the resources they need to make their concepts commercially viable.
Not too long ago, America was the world leader in pushing projects through the development pipeline, from basic R&D all the way to a finished product that could be marketed to consumers on a massive scale.
Back then, companies like Bell Labs, the T.J. Watson Research Center at IBM, and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center innovated in ways that transformed societies around the globe. The list of American inventions from companies like these goes on and on.
In short, manufacturing mattered in America, which was very clear to the average citizen. While the sector still punches above its weight compared with any other aspect of the economy — generating 12.5 percent of GDP in 2013, not to mention one out of every five jobs — we’ve begun to lose our edge.
Over time, American companies became relatively reluctant to invest in the kind of advanced manufacturing technologies that would enable the rapid scale-up of new inventions. It’s risky, it’s costly, and investors want to see a continuous return on their investment. In the manufacturing world, we call the result the “Valley of Death” — a glaring gap between basic science, on the one hand, and full manufacturing readiness on the other.
Meanwhile, other countries are getting behind manufacturing — Germany with its Fraunhofer Institutes and the U.K. with its Catapult High Value Manufacturing program. China, Korea, New Zealand, India and Singapore as well are strongly supporting whole-of-government advanced manufacturing initiatives. Though daunting for the individual company to undertake, a strong private-public partnership makes significant investment worthwhile for all.
At home in the United States, a relative lack of similar investment has caused our own competitiveness to decline. Advanced technology exports are down, and as traditional “production line” manufacturing declines, there is a relative lack of qualified employees for the tech-powered jobs now available.
Ultimately, the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) rests on a simple yet powerful imperative: help disruptive innovators to realize and ultimately develop the market potential of their ideas. To slightly modify a familiar aphorism, a rising cooperative tide floats lifts all research and development boats
The NNMIs unite industry, academia, and government partners in achieving three key objectives:
- Create research institutes where a critical mass of private-public resources help speed products to market.
- Increase the pool of talent for available advanced manufacturing positions.
- Improve the business climate for manufacturing innovation.
This is no small call to arms.
Planning for Impact
Manufacturing innovation institutes exist for one purpose: enabling disruptive American innovation to be brought to market. In effect, these centers are “sandboxes” where member companies can affordably develop methods of manufacturing their prototypes.
Launched with a federal investment of approximately $70 million and requiring at least a one-to-one match, they’re a series of business startups — grassroots, self-sustaining enterprises with a networked, overflow positive impact on the nation as a whole.
To achieve cost-effective operations, the institutes leverage cost-sharing and collaboration strategies to eliminate barriers to refining, validating and commercialization.
Seeking Out Talent
For manufacturing positions now, production-level skills are not enough. Increasingly, basic STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) coursework, technical training, business skills and apprenticeships are vital.
Under the NNMI model, students would ideally study at college or technical schools while working at a nearby regional institute, so that they graduate with exactly the skills they need the job market.
While this outcome is currently a future ideal, the existence of each institute near an academic environment is intended to help build the talent pool needed to ensure that the workforce has access to the growing number of jobs in this sector.
Starting Small, Thinking Big
The first pilot institute, America Makes, was launched in 2012 with a focus on additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. Other institutes are focused on integrated digital design and manufacturing, lightweight technology, wide bandgap semiconductors, and advanced fiber-reinforced polymer composites. The president’s final goal is a network of 45 such institutes over the next 10 years.
Although it is too soon to assess results on a broad basis, the benefits thus far appear to be unfolding as envisioned. With its bottom-line focus, the program is attracting some of the largest companies in the nation to jointly develop game-changing manufacturing technologies that will make an everyday difference in the lives of American consumers.
And though intellectual property is the cornerstone of each institute — with IP always following the inventor — ultimately the innovations launched there will diffuse out to the nation as a whole as new methods and new materials reach the marketplace.
Today, with the growth of the NNMIs, we stand on the brink of a manufacturing renaissance. These highly focused, highly strategic centers of applied advanced research will help ensure that America not only invents the next big things, but also reaps the maximum economic benefits from mastering how to make them here at home.
But we have to hone our game plan to achieve this. For as anyone who has worked in a factory or a design shop knows, manufacturing takes teamwork. So does innovation. And the two — manufacturing and innovation — belong on the same team, working in synch.
Although occasional adversaries, industry and government are in reality positioned on the same playing field. Each has important roles to play, sometimes alone, sometimes together.
When it comes to advanced manufacturing and its underpinning innovations, effective partnerships are essential to meeting the competition — as companies, as industries and as a nation.
(Top image: Courtesy of Thinkstock)
Mike Molnar is Director of the Advanced Manufacturing Program Office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).