Advanced Manufacturing: Where is America Today?

Sept. 15, 2010
Manufacturers are using a combination of technologies, processes and education to promote a new era of U.S. manufacturing that can't be easily replicated by competitors.

Workers at the Corning Inc. Harrodsburg, Ky., plant probably look east with some trepidation. The facility previously produced LCD glass for Asian customers, but demand for larger-sized glass made it impractical to ship overseas, says Don McCabe, Corning's senior vice president of manufacturing and performance excellence. The company also wanted to move closer to its customers, so it shifted LCD production from Harrodsburg to Asia.

Despite pressure from overseas, manufacturing continues at the central Kentucky facility that's been in operation since 1952 and is considered Corning's glass-melting technology center. About one year ago, plant engineers discovered a new use for a decades-old Corning technology now known as Gorilla Glass. It was the third major product transformation for the plant since it opened, says McCabe.

Gorilla Glass has become one of the company's fastest-growing products and is currently produced exclusively in Harrodsburg. That's expected to change soon when a Corning plant in Japan begins producing the specialty glass used in mobile electronic devices. But the Harrodsburg plant has shown resiliency similar to the Gorilla Glass it produces through continued innovation and flexibility that's helped it survive several market shifts. It's the type of nimbleness and focus on cutting-edge developments that some people refer to as "advanced manufacturing."

Advanced manufacturing is a term that's been used loosely to explain any number of methods that take manufacturing operations to another level not easily replicated by competitors. Economic departments, politicians and manufacturing leaders use the phrase to describe where U.S. manufacturers need to be in the future if they're going to remain globally competitive.

What is Advanced Manufacturing?

Flexible and scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass has been a major growth driver for Corning Inc. The specialty glass and ceramics manufacturer rediscovered the decades-old technology when it was searching for opportunities in display cover glass for mobile devices. Gorilla Glass sales could reach $1 billion by 2011, the company says.Advanced manufacturing is most commonly referenced as the use of high-tech processes, often involving factory automation, or the development of innovative products. Nanotechnology, direct digital fabrication and micro manufacturing are a few of the technologies that fit into the advanced manufacturing category (see sidebar "Advancing Manufacturing to the Future"), says Shreyes Melkote, engineering professor and interim director of Georgia Tech's Manufacturing Research Center.

The Anderson Economic Group in Michigan defines advanced manufacturing operations as those that "create advanced products, use innovative techniques in their manufacturing, and are inventing new processes and technologies for future manufacturing." The research center published a report in July that highlighted collaboration in Michigan between industry and education to develop advanced-manufacturing processes and technologies.

But advanced manufacturing is about more than just technology, say other experts. "It's not just robotics," says Rusty Patterson, president and CEO of the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing. "It can encompass new manufacturing technologies that we've developed that other people don't have; it can be processing technologies that we've developed that others don't have, including automation; it even can be areas where the education level is such that it can't be readily duplicated in Third World countries," says Patterson, whose group advocates public policies that foster advanced manufacturing.

Steven Dwyer, president and CEO of advanced-manufacturing consortium Conexus Indiana, includes continuous-improvement principles such as lean manufacturing, Six Sigma and Total Quality Management as critical components of advanced manufacturing. "It doesn't have to be the next generation of product that advanced manufacturing applies to," says Dwyer, former Rolls-Royce Corp. president and chief operating officer.

In essence, says Dwyer, "it's really a different approach to manufacturing."

Rebirth of Gorilla Glass

Corning's approach toward the development of Gorilla Glass could be a game changer for the company. Gorilla Glass contributed $75 million to sales in 2009, says Abbie Liebman, head of strategic programs and an original Gorilla Glass team member. The company expects Gorilla Glass sales to reach at least $250 million this year and possibly $1 billion by 2011.

Gorilla Glass traces its roots to 1960 when Corning began the Project Muscle initiative to develop an ultra-strong glass that a year later resulted in a product called Chemcor. Chemcor received some interest for various applications, including telephone booths but never took off. In 2005 Corning's business development team began looking for opportunities in display cover glass for mobile devices. The project team dug through its technology portfolio and selected Chemcor, which was eventually renamed Gorilla Glass.

During the development process, a major customer called and asked if Corning had a solution that fit the profile of Gorilla Glass, McCabe says. Forward-thinking Harrodsburg engineers already had prepared glass samples that were ready to ship to the inquiring customer, McCabe recalls. "That particular customer was very praiseworthy of Corning and said it's very rare that a company they're interacting with is that responsive," he says. "It's about the nature of how the Harrodsburg plant operates."

Students inspect a prototyped part at Georgia Tech's Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing Institute.The glass the plant initially produced wasn't exactly right for the application because it was an old composition, so Harrodsburg engineers worked with the research and development group to modify the glass. McCabe calls it one of the fastest glass-development activities he's ever seen. He credits plant officials' thorough understanding of its processes and technologies and Corning's ability to partner with other manufacturers quickly as keys to bringing Gorilla Glass to market on demand. Corning's customers in Asia helped the company partner with suppliers that could provide edge coating and finishing for the Gorilla Glass. "Advanced manufacturing is also about how well you can work with other manufacturing companies, such that it is a seamless and low-cost flow, and we did a tremendous job of finding good partners and working very closely with them," McCabe says.

Meanwhile, the Harrodsburg plant expects demand for the durable, scratch-resistant glass to continue growing with manufacturers of LCD televisions expressing interest in the product as a cover glass. The plant also is building additional capacity to produce specialty glass for thin-film photovoltaics utilizing the same fusion manufacturing process that's used in Gorilla Glass production.

Harrodsburg's ongoing innovation fits into Patterson's vision of true advanced-manufacturing operations. "It used to be that becoming lean or implementing Six Sigma was a competitive advantage," he says. "That's just a ticket for entry. What you're seeing now is a push toward innovation because you have to come up with unique ways to design, process or deliver goods that you're making in order to move forward."

But Patterson says companies can't do it alone. Manufacturers must partner with government and educational institutions to foster an advanced-manufacturing environment, he says. Corning is taking advantage of $4.5 million in investment incentives and $1 million in tax rebates from the state of Kentucky for the expansion.

Advanced Training

The lack of skilled workers could be one of the greatest hindrances to pushing U.S. manufacturers ahead of foreign competitors in the advanced-manufacturing race. Conexus Indiana is trying to address this by enlisting area manufacturers to help develop an advanced-manufacturing curriculum for area high schools and colleges, says Dwyer. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Manufacturing Institute said on Aug. 30 it would partner with Conexus and area colleges to develop an advanced-manufacturing certification system in Indiana.

The Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation is providing a $650,000 grant to support the initiative, making Indiana the fifth state to receive private funding to establish a statewide advanced-manufacturing certification system, according to NAM.

The Anderson Economic Group highlighted in a report published in July entitled "The University Research Corridor's Support for Advanced Manufacturing in Michigan" how partnerships between academia and manufacturing are fostering advanced manufacturing in the state.

One example cited in the report is a collaborative effort between Ford Motor Co. and Wayne State University's Engineering Management master's program. Ford management nominates engineers to the program who can earn a master's degree after three years. In the third year of the program, students complete strategic projects based on concerns identified by Ford leadership. One project involved prototype optimization in which students developed a tool for prototype scheduling and tracking that resulted in annual cost savings of $250 million for Ford, according to the report.

At Georgia Tech the university has developed an undergraduate senior Capstone design project in conjunction with sponsor companies, says Steven Danyluk, who recently stepped down as director of Georgia Tech's Manufacturing Research Center. The sponsor companies identify a leader at their company who suggests a Capstone project and serves as a formal adviser to student groups.

Dwyer discusses the need for an advanced manufacturing training program with a sense of urgency. He explains that low-skilled manufacturing jobs have moved offshore and probably aren't coming back. But positions requiring advanced manufacturing skills are in demand and will continue to grow. "The trick for American manufacturing is to identify what needs to be here and raise the bar on how we do it and how we train our workforce," Dwyer says. "If we don't, we're a nation without manufacturing, and we're in for a long economic decline."

See Also:
Advanced Manufacturing to the Future

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Former Managing Editor

Former Managing Editor Jon Katz covered leadership and strategy, tackling subjects such as lean manufacturing leadership, strategy development and deployment, corporate culture, corporate social responsibility, and growth strategies. As well, he provided news and analysis of successful companies in the chemical and energy industries, including oil and gas, renewable and alternative.

Jon worked as an intern for IndustryWeek before serving as a reporter for The Morning Journal and then as an associate editor for Penton Media’s Supply Chain Technology News.

Jon received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Kent State University and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.

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