By Jamie J. Gooch
Timing really is everything when it comes to introducing a new idea. History is riddled with products that failed, in part, because they were ahead of or behind the times. We don’t have to look too far for examples of ideas the world wasn’t ready for, such as 1985’s Sinclair C5 electric vehicle, Sony’s Data Discman electronic book that launched in 1992, or the 1993 Apple Newton MessagePad. And if you listen to technology pundits, it’s too late for Nintendo’s Wii U, Microsoft’s phone business and BlackBerry’s latest operating system.
But when the timing is perfect, a little push in the right direction can have a major impact. That’s the idea behind the Obama Administration’s manufacturing institutes that are being launched using existing resources. Like the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute pilot (now rebranded as America Makes), these new institutes are intended to bring together private industry, academia and Federal agencies to co-invest in technologies that will encourage more investment and production in the U.S.
The first of three planned institutes, the Next Generation Power Electronics Institute, was launched last month in North Carolina. It is focused on “enabling the next generation of energy-efficient, high-power electronic chips and devices by making wide bandgap semiconductor technologies cost-competitive with current silicon-based power electronics in the next five years,” according to a White House press release. The next two institutes, one focusing on digital manufacturing and design innovation, and another on lightweight and modern metals manufacturing, were about to be launched as this issue was being sent to the printer.
The Right Idea
When the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute pilot was launched in 2012, no one accused it of being a solution in search of a problem. Other countries already had such public-private partnerships to support advanced manufacturing technologies. Wide bandgap semiconductor innovations are needed to pick up where silicon leaves off, addressing crucial power efficiency issues holding back innovation in everything from laptop power adapters to electric motors. Likewise, you need look no further than the pages of Desktop Engineering to see the immense promise of further advancements in digital manufacturing and the use of lightweight materials.
The question isn’t whether these technologies are ahead of their time. The question is: “Are these investments too little, too late?”
As part of the government’s commitment of $200 million to the new institutes from multiple Federal agencies, the U.S. Department of Energy will invest $70 million in the Next Generation Power Electronics Institute over the next five years, with that amount matched by companies and state governments. While that is a drop in the bucket compared to the $1 billion plan to create a national network of 15 institutes that the president announced in last year’s State of the Union address, it doesn’t require congressional funding approval. A bipartisan bill introduced in July to create such a network, the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act, is slowly making the rounds in Congress.
Moving the Manufacturing Needle
The backdrop of the president’s announcement was a December jobs report that showed an unexpected slowing of job growth, with manufacturing again the bright spot.
“For decades we’d been losing manufacturing jobs. But now our manufacturers have added over the last four years more than 550,000 new jobs, including almost 80,000 manufacturing jobs in the last five months alone,” said President Obama during the announcement of the Next Generation Power Electronics Institute.
The total number of manufacturing jobs still has a long way to go to even get back to where it was at the turn of the century, though it is higher than its 2010 Great Recession low of 11.4 million. The good news is that it’s showing some signs of life.
The time is right to capitalize on manufacturing’s momentum. A scaled-back version of a national network of advanced manufacturing hubs is better than none at all, and the technologies being funded are well-positioned to make an impact on the future. However, until broader legislation like the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act comes up for a vote, the relatively small investment will only give the organizations involved in the manufacturing institutes a chance to prove their potential. Without more support, that potential could be lost.
Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.