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A Call for Caution at NAMII

April 11, 2013
AMT President Doug Woods urges caution and greater planning in the full-speed charge of NAMII and the NNMI project implementation.

As president of the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT), Doug Woods holds a broad view of the trends, practices and politics impacting the advanced manufacturing world. That view, combined with his perspective as board member to the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM)—the organization that made the NAMII implementation possible—has provided him with unique insight into the role this public/private partnership can, or will, have on the industry.

As the program launches into action, he has uncovered some big questions that need to be answered before NAMII can really progress, and certainly before the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) creates any more tech hubs in its image.

In this exclusive interview with IndustryWeek, Woods outlines some of those concerns and discusses his vision for the future of the NNMI.

How are things going with NAMII so far?

From the standpoint of a launch of an initial pilot location, my perspective is that things are going very well—especially if you consider how much pressure they are under.

They are basically charged with solving all of the world’s problems in manufacturing literally months after getting the place set up.

Just imagine building a factory and being in production six to eight months later. It’s impossible.

They’re absolutely working at warp speed. It’s really impressive what they’ve done so far.

That fast implementation must mean that there are still a lot of things to settle, though. Do you see any issues on the horizon?

There really is a lot to figure out still to make this work.

For example, how do you get universities, with their IP policies, to play? How do you get industries to come in and how much should they pay? What do you do for how much they pay? How do you still involve small and medium sized companies and not leave them out if they can’t pay what the big guys pay? How do you share the equipment? What do you do with the IP once created?

There is just a ton to go through still.

NAMII is the pilot program for the NNMI, so one of its primary roles is to work these things out, and they’ve started getting into some of them in a fairly short period of time, which is pretty impressive, but some of these things are going to take years to work out.

Fate of NNMI

What does that mean for the next 15 NNMI programs that the White House is already pushing for?

That’s where I would urge a little caution.

Obviously we like the idea of any government program that benefits manufacturers, and of course we love the fact that the administration has actually been very focused on manufacturing. But I really think that 15 projects is just too many and the cost to do them too high.

In my opinion, the approach that would make the most sense would be to scale it down to five projects. That way we would only have to work out a budget for five projects and only determine the technologies to focus on for five.

See Also: Will NAMII Work?

And then, in those five, you’d want to take a good look at the lessons learned from the pilot program—figure out what are all the start up issues, the collaboration issues, the IP issues that come out of the NAMII center.

And that, as I said, will take a little more time to work out.

But after that, if those next five are successful we can plan again for the next five beyond that and then the next five.

But I would only take those once they’re approved, once they have critical mass and once that critical mass has an ROI that is deemed to be prudent for the tax dollars they require.

The next projects should be easier to implement after the pilot program runs its course. Shouldn’t that allow for a broader implementation and faster results?

The next project will definitely be much easier to implement. You'll save a lot of time on what these guys at NAMII did with brute force and awkwardness—with eloquence in certain areas— but these guys have done the work that should make it easy for the other ones.

But at the same time—and I’m not saying this because I’m on the board—but we have to recognize that if NAMII wasn't hooked up with NCDMM, which has an existing infrastructure of people who understand the manufacturing industry, the academic world and government—if you didn't have a group like that could help apply their staff until permanent staff could be found, you could have never done this at the speed you've done it at.

That means that every time you do this, you need to have a satellite group that's kind of wed in the technology in the academic side, in the governmental side, so that you can succinctly get these things orchestrated.

 I don't think that's why you can't throw ten of them at NCDMM and have them do it. You have to find other groups to help out and then other communities. And that will become a big issue.

And it really comes down to having the right mix of local community colleges and universities, local manufacturing personnel and supply chain and also the right political leaders in that area that are able to coordinate resources and tie back into things that are happening on Capitol Hill or other agencies. It's not going to work unless those things are there.

It so happens that this particular one does have the right mix of that in Youngstown. You have a lot of things right there in that area that fit. But again, it's putting that caution out there, I would hope that in the future it's not a political decision where one of these centers end up, but it's a practical business decision based on where it sets up based on each of those things that you need to orchestrate it properly.

The Role of Government

Looking long term, what should the government’s role in these projects become?

We have to be prudent with tax dollars. Especially today when it is so hard to find any.

You have to know you’re going to get more out of these programs than we invest into them. If you can’t actually measure a deliverable that gets you an ROI that’s positive, then the government is going to have to find a way to sunset these things.

And in general, I don’t think these things should go on ad infinitum. It should be, two years to get them set up, two years to prove out the technology, a year to measure the performance, to see if it’s any good, and then you can look at funding for an additional five years. This way, if a project doesn’t make its numbers in time, you can sunset it and move to another technology.

I think the tax payers deserve to say ‘we’ve given it a good try, we’ve given it a good run, but maybe this thing wasn’t the best way to do it.’

See Also: NAMII and the Rise of Youngstown, Ohio: A Discussion With Congressman Tim Ryan

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