November 21, 2012    Volume 19, No. 18

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Industry, Academia and Research Organizations Wholeheartedly Endorse National Network For Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI)


By Richard A. McCormack
editor@manufacturingnews.com

The May 4, 2012, "request for information" issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology for ideas on how to create and operate the proposed National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) drew responses from 78 organizations, including some of the country's most respected companies, universities, research organizations and state and local economic development agencies.

Those who submitted comments, which were due by October 25, voiced overwhelming support for the creation of the proposed $1-billion network of up to 15 Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs).

In reading through the hundreds of pages of responses what becomes clear is the tremendous amount of time and thoughtfulness put into the submissions. Many make a convincing case for investing in specific manufacturing technologies, whether they focus on supply chain automation (such as the one proposed by Rockwell Automation in a 25-page submission), mass production of new nanobiomaterials (such as a proposal from RTI International and the state of North Carolina), photonics (as proposed by the Optoelectronics Industry Development Association), or an Institute for Composites Manufacturing Innovation (as proposed by SCRA).

There is widespread support for a variety of technical areas that are repeatedly mentioned as being essential to assuring U.S. competitiveness in manufacturing and industry.

At a time of severe budget constraints, those in industry and academia on the front lines of manufacturing technology are adamant about the United States making NNMI a priority investment, otherwise, many of them say, the country will not capitalize on the advances being made throughout every technology and industrial sector.

Companies like Procter and Gamble, United Technologies and those involved in the semiconductor equipment industry say it is essential for the country to recommit itself to joint government-industry-academic research consortia that can generate new American jobs, otherwise foreign competitors will widen their manufacturing lead. (But are they committed enough to lobby Congress on the program's behalf?)

Some of the organizations submitting proposals say it is imperative for the United States not to overlook "old" or established industries, and that institutes not only pursue high-risk revolutionary manufacturing technologies but existing technologies that have low risks and high rewards. "Let's make sure we don't lose the jobs and factories we already have before we bet too much money on the next 'transformational technology' that may never overcome its current barriers; and even if successful will take many years and a huge investment by industry before its impact is felt in the economy," said Robert Wilhelm, vice chancellor for research and economic development at University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Throughout the submissions there was widespread enthusiasm expressed for the proposed NNMI. The Fraunhofer Institute based in Germany thinks such a network of advanced manufacturing research centers is "urgently needed and can significantly advanced the cause of revitalizing and sustaining manufacturing in the United States."

Dale Lombardo of General Electric's Manufacturing Technology division says he is an "advocate" for creating the NNMI. "There is no shortage of challenges to solve that fall into the gap between R&D and available commercialized tools," he writes. "Even for a company like GE with the expertise and resources that we have available to us, it can often be difficult to justify and marshal the resources that some manufacturing challenges require. I believe the investment will have a significant and large multiplier effect on the U.S. economy at all levels. In short this kind of initiative will enable sharing of risks and benefits across the NNMI consortiums." GE expects to benefit not only from the pilot institute already created in Youngstown, Ohio, for additive manufacturing "but from many, if not all, of the subsequent proposed NNMIs."

General Dynamics is also on board. "I fully endorse President Obama's initiative to create a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation," writes Dean Bartles, vice president of advanced programs and strategic growth for GD's Ordnance and Tactical Systems division in St. Petersburg, Fla. "This is exactly what the United States needs right now! I truly feel this program could become the foundation of a turning point in the U.S. for the rebirth of manufacturing. . . We need to figure out ways to keep the great ideas that Americans come up with for new products and find affordable ways to manufacture those new products here in the U.S. NNMI will be an excellent starting point!"

Sematech, the research consortium instrumental in reviving the U.S. semiconductor industry, says that from its vantage point "we resonate very strongly" with the proposed NNMI network "since there are such clear parallels with our own experience as a groundbreaking consortium."

Rolls-Royce Corp. says it will consider participating in institutes that focus on metal casting, composites, advanced and intelligent machining and fabrication methods, advanced metrology, sensors, digital and virtual manufacturing, modeling technology and advanced joining and near-net shape technologies.

United Technologies says the United States has been successful in developing new materials but not in creating the equivalent manufacturing technologies or workforce to produce them. The paltry investment in manufacturing means new products "are less viable for domestic production," says UT. As such, the proposed NNMI "represents a well-founded investment to generate investment across various levels of the manufacturing supply chain, which will team with educational institutions that also reach across different levels."

Lockheed Martin was equally as effusive. A national network focused on manufacturing "is critical to the long term success of Lockheed Martin, the defense industry and the national economy," said the company in a 20-page submission supporting the concept. "We believe the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation can be a catalyst for the positive manufacturing revolution required to bring back the economic strength of the United States. [It] is the right initiative at the right time and we look forward to working collaboratively with government, industry and academia to rejuvenate American manufacturing."

"I welcome this initiative with great enthusiasm," wrote Cetin Cetinkaya of Clarkson University's Nanomechanics/Nanomaterials Lab.

Ralph Resnik, executive director of the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining says the NNMI initiative is a "most worthwhile effort" to rebuild both the defense and domestic manufacturing sectors.

The National Institute for Pharmaceutical Technology and Education is another "enthusiastic" supporter. The institute sees NNMI as a way "for the U.S. to reclaim its leadership in advanced manufacturing by implementing a long-term strategy that actively engages industry, government and universities in a sustained innovation partnership." The country has two unique advantages, its universities and its ingrained entrepreneurial spirit. "Our main disadvantage is that our universities and our small and medium-size companies do not collaborate either effectively or easily," writes the pharmaceutical institute. "After decades of federal neglect, during which funding for manufacturing-related research was close to non-existent, manufacturing-related research lacks academic prestige and engages a relatively small fraction of the university enterprise. In fact, the tenure processes in many leading universities have a built-in bias against research dominated by industry sponsorship." There are also very few facilities that are accessible to both industry and university to serve as testbeds where advanced manufacturing innovation can undergo the testing, validation and improvement at a scale that is relevant to industrial use. There are few hands-on educational and training facilities where both industry and universities can collaborate on developing the next generation of technology and workers. "Thus, an important part of an effective U.S. strategy for growing manufacturing capacities is to develop and implement infrastructure that removes the difficulties to academic/industrial collaboration and leverages and synergizes their respective strengths. Fortunately, while our strengths and advantages take decades to build, our disadvantages can be overcome relatively quickly. We concur whole-heartedly that the NNMI initiative does offer the promise of addressing the above-mentioned U.S. disadvantages."

To view the responses, set your browser to http://manufacturing.gov/rfi_responses.html. Here are some highlights and interesting insights from among the 78 submissions.


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