Congress Hears Call for Manufacturing Innovation

March 22, 2010
Industry experts testify, call for shift in priorities toward innovation and advanced manufacturing.

More investment in public-private partnerships and prioritizing key technologies are crucial if America is to avoid losing its competitive edge in manufacturing, industry and policy leaders warned Congress in recent testimony.

With a heavy focus on manufacturing innovation and governments role in stimulating new technologies, experts from private, public and academic backgrounds said rival economies have already mobilized their resources in more efficient, targeted areas.

In order to be relevant, we need to ensure that government R&D programs are focused on ways to provide high-quality assembly, non-destructive evaluation, and high rates of repeatability at large volumes, said Susan Smyth, director of General Motors manufacturing systems research lab, in testimony to the House Committee on Science and Technology on March 17.

Much of the discussion centered on the funding and priorities of programs overseen by agencies within the committees jurisdiction, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory (MEL), the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) and Technology Innovation Program (TIP).

GMs Smyth said many of these programs have been critical to the development and deployment of technologies used in the automotive sector, such as wireless standards for Ethernet, advanced robotics and the rise of virtual manufacturing.

We need to focus attention on technologies that enhance our virtual and flexible manufacturing capabilities at the project level, said Smyth. Areas such as robotics, virtual manufacturing, and sustainability are key technology areas of focus for [automotive manufacturing].

According to Len Sauers, vice president of global sustainability at Procter & Gamble, government has a critical place at the table in helping to spawn manufacturing innovation. He called for stronger research into renewable energy; reauthorizing the America Competes Act, a bill to strengthen research, education and other drivers of innovation; and more partnerships on national labs, such as one Procter & Gamble helped develop in Los Alamos, N.M., which has been used to develop innovative approaches to manufacturing processes.

We need to continue to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education and training, said Sauers. One of the top three skill sets we seek for management positions are undergraduate engineers. Those are getting harder to find.

The committee heard testimony from Debtosh Chakrabarti, president of PMC Group, a chemical manufacturer, who warned that the domestic chemical industry is in dire need of growth revival. The U.S., he said, needs to increase the number of high-wage jobs and, at the same time, reduce its dependence on foreign oil. One way in which to do this, said Chakrabarti, is through replacing crude oil as a chemical feedstock and replacing it with chemicals based on renewable sources.

This is a near-term realistic possibility, said Chakrabarti. But the renewable chemicals industry faces challenges to get it off the ground. These challenges lie primarily in the development and commercialization phase.

Chakrabarti told the committee that funding public and private research in new productivity improvement could enable new innovation on the energy front, along with leveraging existing efforts of the MEP, which assists small- and medium-sized manufacturers in implementing best practices on cost efficiency.

The committee chairman, Bart Gordon (D-TN), said that U.S. manufacturing, despite calls to the contrary, is not dead and still generates more than $1.5 trillion worth of goods, accounting for more than half of total U.S. exports.

However, the manufacturing sector in the U.S. is not as strong and vibrant as it once was, said Gordon. In order to avoid a further decline, we need to take action now to preserve, and perhaps even grow, the U.S. manufacturing sector for the future.

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