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3 Actions Congress Can Take Now to Help Small Manufacturers

Digital manufacturing, and training around it, need additional federal support to boost initiatives already in motion.

With Congress now back in session after its August recess, funding the government for the next fiscal year is an urgent priority. This is an important opportunity to strengthen proven federal programs that help small manufacturers prepare for the future.

New technologies like generative design, additive manufacturing (3D printing), AI and robotics are radically changing the industry. These technologies are breaking down walls that have long existed between digital design and the physical manufacturing process, allowing for faster and more cost-effective development and fabrication of innovative products. We need to ensure that these revolutions in digital manufacturing are accessible to product design and manufacturing firms of all sizes. 

Here are three actions Congress can take today to prepare small manufacturers for the future of digital manufacturing. 

1. Support Long-Term Viability of the Manufacturing USA program

The Manufacturing USA program is a national network of 14 manufacturing institutes aimed at advancing development of technologies that will increase U.S. competitiveness. America Makes (Youngstown, OH) focuses on additive manufacturing, and MxD (Chicago, IL) focuses on digital processes and workflows. Additional institutes specialize in advanced composites, robotics, photonics and other areas of advanced manufacturing.  

We have seen firsthand how the Manufacturing USA institutes successfully unite industry, academia and government to foster technology development and deployment, and support upskilling and education. For example, MxD has launched numerous workforce development initiatives, including a massive open online course (MOOC) on digital manufacturing and design, an assistance program for small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), and workshops for middle and high school students on STEM education and digital manufacturing. Autodesk recently established a Generative Design Field Lab at MxD to provide training on advanced digital design and fabrication tools.   

Though successful, the Manufacturing USA program needs lasting, sustainable federal funding and support to maintain and expand the program. Federal funding provides the seed money to start the institutes and recruit partners from industry and academia. Yet, in many cases, the initial funding does not offer them enough time to become self-sustaining, and many critical areas of advanced manufacturing are not yet covered. The American Manufacturing Leadership Act, which recently passed the House, and the Global Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing Act are similar bipartisan bills in Congress that would support the program’s long-term viability by increasing federal funding, enhancing coordination between institutes, and prioritizing education and workforce training. Congress can bolster the program by enacting key elements of both bills and providing sufficient, long-term funding for current and future institutes.

2. Fully fund the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program

The Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) is another federal program that aids small manufacturers. With facilities in all states and Puerto Rico, it helps manufacturers adopt advanced manufacturing technologies, techniques and business best practices. The results are impressive.  In 2017, the program connected with nearly 27,000 manufacturers, fostered more than $12 billion in sales and helped create or retain more than 100,000 US manufacturing jobs. 

The MEP program, like Manufacturing USA, is a public-private partnership. Federal funding pays half the costs with the other half coming from state and local governments and the private sector. The program is a wise investment of federal dollars, returning nearly $14.50 to the federal treasury in taxes for every $1 spent.

Congress must ensure that the MEP program is adequately funded so it can continue assisting small manufacturers to be more innovative and competitive. It should also strengthen the partnership between the MEP and Manufacturing USA programs, as proposed in the American Manufacturing Leadership Act and the Global Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing Act, so they leverage the resources of the other to better serve small firms.

3. Enact the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Act

The Smart Manufacturing Leadership Act is a bipartisan effort to expand federal training programs that help SMBs adopt “smart manufacturing” technologies. 

The legislation directs the Secretary of Energy to develop a national smart manufacturing plan, expands existing Department of Energy programs to assist SMB manufacturers in adopting these technologies and provides federal grants to states to establish similar training programs. In addition to improving manufacturing competitiveness, the legislation is estimated to save consumers $5 billion in energy costs by 2040 while reducing carbon emissions equivalent to taking 116 million cars off the road.

The bill defines smart manufacturing broadly to include digital product design and simulation, digital design and simulation of factory production lines, digitally connected supply chain networks and even digital design of factory buildings. It recognizes that truly “smart manufacturing” encompasses how you design a product, how you make a product, how you design your factories, and how you connect the supply chain.

These legislative initiatives will help prepare small manufacturers for the future, and they each have bipartisan support. Congress should act on them without delay.

David Ohrenstein is director and senior public policy counsel, Autodesk. Autodesk, creator of 3D design, engineering and construction software, is a member of several Manufacturing USA institutes, including America Makes and MxD.

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