Jan 24, 2013
Emily McMackin
Emily McMackin
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Winning the Innovation Race: Keeping a Competitive Edge Starts With Manufacturing

Technology: semiconductor manufacturing

Innovation is becoming a buzzword lately among economists who see it as the ticket to prosperity now and the key to growth in the future. In an economy increasingly driven by talent, technology and global competition, this intangible asset is beginning to dominate discourse once ruled by more tangible advantages like location, labor, incentives, etc.

How competitive is the U.S. in this arena? Not nearly competitive enough, according to some economists who argue that today’s innovations lack the impact of those in decades and centuries past. In manufacturing especially, research and development is becoming more important than ever, along with hiring workers skilled in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and generating patents for new products and processes.

Though manufacturing accounts for only 9 percent of all jobs, it is still the largest internationally traded sector, which makes it vital to succeed in the global market. For any country, raising competitiveness in manufacturing is key to keeping an economic edge.

As part of an initiative to spur advances in manufacturing, President Barack Obama recently launched a public-private institute for manufacturing innovation in Youngstown, Ohio. The first of 15 to be developed nationwide, the $69 million National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) will focus on the latest frontier in manufacturing — 3D printing, which uses digital models to make three-dimensional products. With the potential to be used in a wide range of applications, this technique allows for rapid prototyping in everything from defense and aerospace to automotive and metals production.

Not Your Grandfather’s Manufacturing
NAMII will partner with manufacturing firms, nonprofits, universities and community colleges throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to research opportunities and develop talent for this emerging manufacturing niche. The institute’s overall goal, according to organizers, is to develop strategies for bridging the industry’s growing skills gap and entice up-and-coming talent to enter the field. Those working with the initiative hope it will to change the perception of factories, from dark, dingy and monotonous places to work to high-tech centers of creativity.

“The nature of additive manufacturing is actually very comfortable for today’s younger generation and how they understand the world,” Darrell Wallace, NAMII’s acting deputy director of workforce and educational outreach, told Industry Market Trends. “NAMII really reaches out to a new generation of manufacturing employees and gets them excited and interested in manufacturing processes. Manufacturing is sexy again.”

The Case for Manufacturing Universities
Along with institutes focused on manufacturing innovation, engineering programs at colleges and universities have the potential to help the U.S. boost its edge in manufacturing and production, according to Brookings Institution fellows Robert Atkinson and Stephen Ezell, who co-authored a white paper advocating for the establishment of  “manufacturing universities.”

Just as land-grant colleges, established by Congress in 1862, helped usher progress in agriculture and its industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th century, federally-designated manufacturing universities could help revolutionize engineering education in higher-education institutions and transform classrooms into “entrepreneurial factories” where students are trained to solve problems, design solutions, and create new products and ideas.

These universities would operate according to several common objectives, Atkinson and Ezell propose, including: revamp engineering curriculum to emphasize work relevant to manufacturing; offer students opportunities for hands-on training and real-world experience; require high-level apprenticeships and/or industry experience for doctoral candidates; and partner with business schools to offer integrated curriculum in management.

What do you think of these new (and proposed) initiatives? What should regions, cities and communities be doing to better position themselves in the global market and spur innovation in manufacturing and other related industries? Please share your thoughts below.

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