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LEADING EDGE - by Vivek Wadhwa

Maker’s Movement

A government initiative to advance American manufacturing is a good, if modest, step.

The White House recently announced a public-private-academic partnership to accelerate the advancement of the U.S. manufacturing industry. If funded by Congress, the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) will comprise 15 regional innovation hubs with a mission to fund applied research and provide shared research facilities; develop workforce-training programs; and assist industry in expanding manufacturing capabilities and supply chains. Think what has happened with the Internet — which advanced at a snail’s pace until 15 years ago. - Vivek Wadhwa

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. Automation technologies such as the $22,000 Baxter adaptive robot from Rethink Robotics are rapidly changing the cost/benefit ratio of manufacturing goods in the United States. Designed to work safely alongside humans, Baxter has two arms, a face that displays simulated emotion, and cameras and sensors that detect the motion of its coworkers. It can perform assembly and move boxes — just as humans do. Its operating costs are comparable
to Chinese labor rates. And Baxter will work 24 hours a day without complaining.

Beyond cost advantages, locating manufacturing close to engineering expertise also fuels innovation. GE found 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 the world’s most advanced electric vehicle, the Model S, in Fremont, Calif.—next door to Silicon Valley. Although the area has some of the world’s highest labor costs, Tesla uses robots to do the vehicle assembly, mitigating the bottom-line impact. And proximity to Silicon Valley gives the automaker access to some of the best design and engineering talent in the world. Apple Inc. also sees the benefit. It recently announced its intention to start manufacturing computers in the United States again.

With the labor-cost advantages that robots provide, it no longer makes sense to ship raw goods to China to have them assembled and shipped back across the Pacific. But there are logistical challenges that prevent manufacturing from returning home. Entire supply chains are now located in China, so there is 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 to set up manufacturing plants. This is where the government can help: retraining the workforce and assisting businesses with new factory setup.

Even as robots are beginning to disrupt traditional assembly-style manufacturing, other technologies are advancing that will put the robots out of business in the next decade. 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. Then there is 3-D printing, which promises to change the process of manufacturing itself. Rather than power-driven machine tools that physically remove or “subtract” material to make a product, “additive manufacturing” produces goods based on 3-D models by laying down successive layers of materials. This allows manufacturers to create complex objects without any tools or fixtures — “laser printing” goods rather than assembling them.

More research is required to accelerate the creation of advanced materials and to standardize the processes, materials, and equipment for additive manufacturing. Most critical is to unclog the pipeline from university lab to industry. These are all within the scope of NNMI, but it has incredibly long time horizons and relatively small amounts of funding. The government expects to invest $70 million to $120 million over a five- to seven-year span in each of the 15 hubs to be launched over the next two to three years. This is a drop in the ocean for a trillion-dollar market opportunity and competitive global advantage. What we need is a Manhattan Project-scale initiative — with far greater investments and much shorter time frames.


Vivek Wadhwa is a scholar specializing in entrepreneurship. He is vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University and is also affiliated with Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, Stanford University, and Emory University.


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