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 FROM THE EDITOR

 
Mark Matthews

High-Stakes R&D


Steven Rattner oversaw the federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. Both automakers show signs of recovery, so you might expect him to be bullish about U.S. manufacturing. He’s not. Writing in the October 17 New York Times, Rattner dismisses “politically attractive happy talk nostalgically centered on restoring lost manufacturing jobs.” The declining role of manufacturing in the economy, he says, “will continue.”

So the stakes are high for the engineering researchers whose work Tom Grose describes in our cover story, “Making It.” They’re developing the revolutionary techniques that Rattner’s former boss, President Obama, hopes will produce a “renaissance” of U.S. manufacturing. Among them: 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, which requires no dies or molds and shows promise in producing high-quality aerospace components, for example. Robots are common in factories, but new research aims at enabling them to work symbiotically with people. Nanotechnology is another growing field with broad manufacturing potential. If it’s cost-effective to make products here, the reasoning goes, we can compete with countries whose main selling point is low wages.

More than jobs is at risk if the United States continues to bleed manufacturing operations. We hear complaints that technology invented in the United States – lithium ion batteries, for example – ends up being produced overseas. But loss of manufacturing could also diminish American capacity for innovation, since industry serves as a test bed for research and development and exposes problems that need to be solved. Already, multinational firms are locating R&D close to production sites overseas.

Advanced manufacturing, if it succeeds, offers a bright future for engineers, Grose reports. Laid-off industrial workers won’t fare so well, since part of what makes the new techniques attractive is greater productivity. What will be needed are skilled technicians with a grounding in math and science.

We hope you enjoy the cover story, as well as this month’s other features: Charles Choi’s look at nanosatellites that let undergraduates participate in sophisticated space research, and Corinna Wu’s story about South Korea’s planned nuclear-only graduate school, developed in collaboration with Virginia’s George Mason University.

Mark Matthews
m.matthews@asee.org

 



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