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Manufacturing Counts – It’s a Technology-Based Economy – Establish a National Technology Foundation November 19, 2008

Posted by Yoram Koren in ERC.
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Contrary to the common wisdom, manufacturing remains a critical part of our nation’s wealth and security. More than any other segment of the economy, the manufacturing industry stimulates jobs both directly in production and even more in support services. Also, retaining the ability to actually make things enriches our export economy and our national security. More than in any other sector, advances in manufacturing advance other industries as well. Not every job counts equally in today’s technology-based economy. We must never again allow ourselves to take the position that there is no difference between making computer chips and potato chips. We must remember that there are manufacturing jobs that create additional work in the US, and there are jobs, like clerking at Walmart, that create more jobs abroad than they do at home. “A job is a job” is a policy only acceptable for those who don’t have a job or for those who don’t understand that the economy has changed.

Historically, American innovation has led the world. Nowhere is that more true than in manufacturing.  Even after the loss of jobs to other countries, the production of goods ranging from consumer electronics to industrial equipment still accounts for 14 percent of the U.S. GDP and 11 percent of U.S. employment. By continuing to stimulate engineering research and technology innovations, and creating new products and markets, “Made in America” can still lead the world. We can’t afford not to!

To succeed in the current turbulent market, we need a transition to an economy based on technology and engineering innovations. Innovations must be linked with the manufacturing of the invented products. If a product is invented in the US (iPod, fax machine) but is not subsequently produced in the US, ultimately its value-added to the economy is low. If a product is sold in the US and is not produced in the US, its value-added to job creation in the US is minimal.

In any case, we cannot turn back the clock. Jobs that have migrated overseas are gone. We need to create new industries, new markets, and new production tools that will minimize the low-cost labor advantage of foreign countries. For the US to fit into the new global economic model we need to invent new products and new production technologies that that could domestically produce goods efficiently and yet provide high-quality jobs.

What we need from our Government is a clearer recognition that we are changing to a technology-based economy, and a clearer understanding of why, in any industry sector, production is a strategic asset in this new economic reality. How can Government accelerate the structuring of a technology-based economy? Congress must establish a new National Technology Foundation with a substantial annual budget (of perhaps $5 billion) with three equally core missions: (i) to support the invention of new products and innovative technologies, (ii) to transfer new technologies to industry, and (iii) to educate the workforce in the uses of new technologies, and thereby create the next generation of America’s middle class.

This new National Technology Foundation will invest in research and technologies critical to sustaining U.S. global economic competitiveness, such as:

  • Robotics for the workplace and for national security
  • Flexible automation for the factory floor
  • Laser-based, rapid inspection technology to efficiently inspect 100% of a production run
  • Reconfigurable manufacturing systems to efficiently change production to meet market needs
  • Technology to manufacture customized products at affordable prices
  • Smart factory maintenance technologies
  • Low-cost production of personalized intelligent devices (like prosthetics for amputee victims, military and civilian, that is becoming a growth market in the new economy)
  • Information technology for more effective delivery of multifaceted services (such as healthcare)
  • Technology for developing fuel-efficient and accident avoidance vehicle systems
  • Green production technologies for sustainable industry

These new technologies and devices will be transferred to U.S. industry through cooperation between universities and industry, including both small entrepreneurial businesses and large U.S. manufacturing corporations.

The new National Technology Foundation (NTF) will also need to develop teaching tools at the vocational and community college levels to train workers in the specialized knowledge and skills needed to operate and maintain the new high-tech manufacturing systems and devices. Workers, skilled in the newly enhanced technologies, and joined by a new generation of talented mid-level innovators (all made possible by the new NTF) will form America’s new middle class.

But can this new innovative class compete? Jobs based on our new technologies will advance American manufacturing to the very highest levels of expertise and versatility. By empowering the ones who make innovation a practical reality, we will elevate a professional class whose value is based on the delivery of tangible and rapid improvements in our lifestyle. And, relying on the new markets and new innovations, we will avoid being lost in market backwaters where we neither produce the volumes nor the qualities necessary to compete. The new NTF will help us stay well ahead of our globally productive but innovatively limited competition. Not only will we continuously raise the bar for productivity and product variety, advancements in quality will see to it that our products are the new benchmark for inexpensive high-quality work. Ideally, by the time our competitors have caught up to where we were, we’ll have moved on to the next big thing.

The NSF-sponsored Center for Reconfigurable Manufacturing Systems is defining the next paradigm in manufacturing industry. We are in many ways also a microcosm for what the new NTF should look like. In direct collaboration with industry we are focusing on the types of innovation that they value most and do so in conjunction with their partners and competitors alike. In this way, the RMS Center is developing important new tools for the technology-based economy. At the other end of the spectrum we are developing new educational materials to inspire our nation’s youth. The Center for Reconfigurable Manufacturing Systems is a rare place where industry professionals of the highest caliber can work together to break new ground in manufacturing expertise; the place where the most difficult technical challenges can be overcome and by so doing, raise the quality and productivity of all American industry. It has demonstrated the way to develop the new economy. Now, it just has to be amplified exponentially for national impact.