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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has almost 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the design … More »

Should Feds Fund U.S. Manufacturing Innovation?

 
October 30th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

Late last year I started following a federal-level initiative that’s been around a while on establishing manufacturing hubs (known as institutes) around the country specializing in specific areas of expertise.

Some of these hubs include:

  • Chicago, IL – digital manufacturing and design innovation
  • Detroit, MI – lightweight materials
  • Raleigh, NC – semiconductor technology
  • Youngstown, OH – additive manufacturing
  • Knoxville, TN – advanced composite materials
  • San Jose, CA – flexible hybrid electronics

Together, this is known as the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). This network may expand to as many as 16 institutes (there are currently seven to nine, depending on who you talk to) by the end of 2016. The vision is for an eventual total of 45 institutes, although no target date has been set for that goal, but a decade sounds about right.

The manufacturing hubs are intended to be a way for companies and universities to collaborate on research to improve manufacturing and add jobs. The idea is to spread advancements to small businesses and entrepreneurs, as well as large corporations.

Each institute is being created to concentrate on a specific type of manufacturing process. For example, the first institute, America Makes in Youngstown, OH, deals with 3D printing (additive manufacturing). At this time, the manufacturing institutes are in various stages of development.

Along with NNMI, the Obama administration has announced two programs aimed at assisting small manufacturers.

The first is the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a state-federal network of 60 centers and 1200 manufacturing experts. Nonprofit organizations will compete for agreements to operate MEP centers in 12 states and offer lean production and technology services to small businesses. There is to be $158 million in federal funds invested to be matched by $158 million from the private sector.

MEP competitions will be conducted in Alaska, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The second program is called the White House Supply Chain Innovation Initiative. The administration will convene a group of executives from companies that want to help small manufacturers adopt new technology faster and improve product design.

On the one hand, I feel that this is money well spent by the federal government, and something I like my tax dollars being spent on as opposed to perpetual squandering (don’t get me started). On the other hand, though, although there have been notable exceptions, I wonder if federal government involvement/intervention/oversight will stifle true innovation in the long run with yet another federal program. Think NASA. In this regard, the manufacturing industry and the market have more often than not been stronger forces for timely and true innovation.

However, I’m still on the fence about this. How about you? Are these initiatives a good or bad thing, and why?

Editor’s Note: I’ve passed through my first quarter of the school year for middle school math, and am now in the midst of a one-week project called Explore Week with 9th and 10th graders. I’ve partnered with a teacher and this week we have embarked on designing and building furniture using cardboard and an Epilog laser cutter to produce the parts, as well as a Makerbot 3D printer using PLA to make scale models. The software we have used for 2D has been Adobe Illustrator, and for 3D, we’ve used Onshape and 123D Make. I have to admit, the results have been pretty impressive and most of the kids took to the software more easily than many adults I have witnessed. Coming in with no pre-conceived notions and willing to make mistakes while learning has been a great experience for the students, and for me.

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