Workshop Tackles 'Extreme' Manufacturing

Jan. 14, 2011
Ultimate goal is to develop long-term technology vision for U.S. manufacturing

If you sometimes think that no one in Washington is paying attention to U.S. manufacturing, think again. Wednesday marked the conclusion of a two-day workshop led by multiple government agencies and tasked with the goal to identify technology advances needed to make future U.S. manufacturing more competitive. While a conclusive long-term agenda did not emerge from the effort, lots of ideas did -- as well as a recognition that considerable work remains to be done.

Titled Extreme Manufacturing What are the technology needs for long-term U.S. manufacturing competitiveness? the workshop was attended by a mix of academics, manufacturers and multiple government agencies primarily with technology-related agendas. It was presented by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Several speakers kicked off the event, offering both aspirational and pragmatic words addressing U.S. manufacturing, technology and the role of innovation. Manufacturing is the defining priority of NIST programs due, among other reasons, to its critical role in the nations innovation agenda, said NIST Director Patrick D. Gallagher, during opening remarks. That said, he noted the story of manufacturing has not been consistently bright.

The reality is that innovation happens when you try to make something, added Kaigham J. Gabriel, deputy director of DARPA. To innovate you must make.

Gabriel also addressed DARPAs own efforts to reduce both the time it takes bring new technologies from the design stage to production readiness, as well as the cost. The costs, he said, are incurred at the seams in the process, or those hand-off points from design to prototyping to testing and tooling and ultimately to manufacturing production.

And Howard Harary, deputy director for manufacturing of the NIST engineering laboratory, addressed the question of just what is extreme manufacturing? He defined it as extremely different, looking well into the future. It could be extremely agile, he said, extremely small or big, extremely sustainable or green.

A key goal mentioned throughout the workshop sessions was to think big, well beyond incremental improvements. Another key aim was to keep the workshop conversation focused on technology advances, even as the event organizers acknowledged that other challenges, such as public policy and workforce development, also impact U.S. manufacturing competitiveness. Attendees at this event primarily were technicians and engineers.

The workshop addressed four topic areas: future intelligent manufacturing systems; extremely efficient and effective manufacturing that is both affordable and sustainable; frontiers of manufacturing science; and the future manufacturing enterprise.

In the end, workshop attendees began a trek toward developing a long-term vision of future manufacturing, although as one facilitator noted, The more extreme an idea got, the more vague it became. One extreme goal that emerged was the development of a flexible machine that could build anything. Others touched on additive manufacturing, improved and more accessible simulation tools, atomically precise manufacturing, and nanomanufacturing.

There was no lack of observations and opinions throughout the two-day event. They included:

  • Rethink U.S. government funding of research and development. A vast majority is aimed at mission-oriented programs, noted one attendee, while very little is aimed at driving economic growth.
  • Look to and learn from the semiconductor industry in the area of new product development. It has developed a shorter product development cycle than many industries, and competitors collaborate in certain areas.
  • The manufacturing and information technology communities are too isolated from each other, within manufacturing companies, in academia and elsewhere.

The workshop concluded with assertions by its organizers that the conversation would continue via multiple avenues. To that end, the Science and Technology Policy Institute, which also played a significant role in organizing the workshop, is putting together an intermediate proceedings report and will take on the task of compiling the final report.

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