A new study by the National Science Board (NSB) raises a warning flag that recent cuts in American research and development programs in both the private and public sectors have the potential to hamper long-term US competitiveness.
"Our nation’s economic growth depends on our capacity to educate, innovate and build," says the report released by the NSB, the governing body of the National Science Foundation. But between 2008 and 2009, in the midst of the most recent recession, American businesses cut funding for R&D by nearly 5%, or $12 billion, the report notes. The NSB says these cuts, coupled with government budget constraints at all levels, are reasons for concern.
Private venture capital investment in select science and technology industries declined from $43 billion in 2000 to less than $10 billion in 2010, the report notes. Private equity investments in certain science and technology industries plummeted from nearly $60 billion in 2007 to less than $10 billion in 2008, but it has rebounded somewhat since then, reaching about $15 billion in 2010. The report states that decline in private-sector investment was accompanied by a shift away from investment in crucial early stage start-ups, a more risky investment.
"Private-sector R&D investment is sensitive to economic trends," says Arthur K. Reilly, a former senior director for strategic technology policy at Cisco Systems. "During recessions, it’s not surprising that businesses would spend less. But the volatility also reflected shifts of private equity, venture capital and angel funding from early stage investment to the less risky late-stage investment," notes Reilly, who led the development of the report.
During 2008-2009, when business investment dropped, the decline was partly, but temporarily, made up by increased federal R&D funding. But federal funding is more focused on fundamental, capacity-building research and private-sector funding on development, which is closer to the market. The federal government is the chief funder of basic research—funding 53% compared to the private sector’s 22%. This basic research, much of it performed at national labs and research universities, generates the transformative knowledge base from which the private sector can draw. The federal government also fosters business-funded R&D through tax credits, support for higher education and funding for programs such as the National Science Foundation’s recently established Innovation Corps, which builds and strengthens public-private partnerships.
"A large, complex, and interdependent system of businesses, government and universities has made the US the world’s leader in science and technology," says Ray M. Bowen, who chairs the NSB’s Committee on Science and Engineering Indicators. "Surveying the past decade, we see several troubling trends that, taken together, could have an impact on capacity to innovate in both the near and long term." Bowen is the president emeritus of Texas A&M University and a visiting distinguished professor at Rice University.
"Surveying the past decade, we see several troubling trends that, taken together, could have an impact on the capacity to innovate in both the near and long term."
The NSB also notes its concerns about recent trends in the government’s capacity to educate and train the future R&D workforce. State funding for major public research universities declined by an inflation-adjusted rate of 10% between 2002 and 2010, or by 20% on a per-student basis. Likewise, the federal government investment in academic R&D faces uncertainties due to future budget constraints.
Despite its concerns about the long-term health of the nation’s innovation capacity, the NSB indicated that there are reasons for optimism. Total US R&D has grown nearly uninterrupted since 1953, with sizable increases from both the private sector and the federal government. The private sector funded 62% and conducted 71% of all US R&D in 2009. Notably, the private sector funded nearly 80% of development work, which is critical to bringing potential innovations to market. In addition, while the annual growth of the science and engineering workforce has slowed to 1.4% during the last decade, it far exceeded the 0.2% growth in overall jobs, the report contends. Unemployment is also lower among science and engineering degree holders and workers in science and engineering occupations than in other fields, and salaries tend to be higher.
The report, "Research & Development, Innovation, and the Science and Engineering Workforce," is a companion report for Science and Engineering Indicators 2012, the biennial analysis that highlights trends and factors that have an impact on the nation’s economy, competitiveness and innovation capacity. For more information, see the NSB Web site at http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/ or to download a full copy, see http://nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2012/nsb1203.pdf.
at Manufacturing Event
At a recent open house, vocational students and machine tool customers were presented with manufacturing demonstrations, technical discussions and tips on how to address the shortage of skilled manufacturing workers by Methods Machine Tools (Sudbury, MA). The event drew roughly 1500 attendees from 450 companies and 70 Massachusetts vocational technology students.
"Looking at market indicators, we saw the momentum building in manufacturing and timed Metal Storm [Methods’ name for the event] to provide our customers the confidence to capitalize now on the opportunities to automate their production with the latest innovative machine tool solutions," notes Bryon Deysher, Methods Machine Tools president and CEO. "Now is the right time to invest in the future."
The event highlighted several newer designs, including the Feeler FT-Series, the FVT-600 mm Vertical Turning Lathe (VTL), and a FV-Series Double Column Bridge Mill; Matsuura models including the Matsuura LX-160 two-pallet, five-axis VMC, the MAM72-100H five-axis HMC, and Matsuura’s Cublex-25 five-axis mill-turn center; and two new Nakamura models, the NTY3-250 machine, and the WY-250L machine; among others.
In addition, the event’s technical presentations included a "Production on Demand" seminar and other sessions from Methods and its suppliers on how to machine complete parts in just one setup using multitasking and five-axis machining.
Power transmission manufacturer and developer Tsubakimoto Chain Co. (Tsubaki; Osaka, Japan) has announced it will acquire coolant management and metalworking material handling systems developer Mayfran International (Cleveland) and its affiliated subsidiaries for an undisclosed sum. The move is said to enhance Tsubaki’s global competitiveness in the conveyor industry. Mayfran has been a joint-venture partner with Tsubaki in Japan for nearly 40 years. The acquisition creates the world’s largest company in the market segment.
The companies have signed a share purchase agreement, and the transaction is expected to close in late August. No financial details were disclosed.
Founded in Cleveland in 1933 as a general industrial engineering firm, Mayfran is a global developer of engineered solutions for scrap and coolant management and material handling systems for metalworking, recycling, solid waste processing and other applications.
"The combination will further strengthen Mayfran’s development of its conveyor and coolant management business in Europe and North America, as well as expand its business in China, Brazil and other emerging markets," says Isamu Osa, president and representative director of Tsubaki. "Further, Tsubaki can expect a powerful synergy effect among its related businesses, leading to the enhancement of its global competitiveness and future sustainable growth.
The acquisition will not affect current operations or employment, according to the companies. Mayfran has manufacturing facilities and sales offices in the United States, Europe and Asia, and most of its US employees work at its corporate headquarters and manufacturing operation in the Cleveland suburb of Mayfield Village. Its European headquarters are in Landgraaf, Netherlands.
"Mayfran and Tsubaki know one another well," says J.D. Sullivan Jr., chairman of parent Mayfran Holdings. "We have a similar business approach and complementary products with little overlap. As a result, customers will have access to a broader offering of product solutions and a broader product mix."
Tsubakimoto Chain Co. has strong market positions in premium-quality chains, power transmission units and components including reducers, linear actuators, clutches, and automotive timing chain drive systems used to drive camshafts in auto engines. It also supplies steel and plastic cable carriers to global customers together with Tsubaki Kabelschlepp GmbH. Tsubakimoto Chain is also a developer and producer of factory automation systems, physical distribution systems, and electronic control devices. It operates factories worldwide and its network of sales subsidiaries and affiliates markets its products in more than 70 nations.
Posts Best Quarter Ever
North American robotics companies sold more industrial robots in the second quarter of 2012 than any previous quarter in history, according to new statistics released by Robotic Industries Association (RIA; Ann Arbor, MI), the industry’s trade group.
A total of 5556 robots valued at $403.1 million were sold to North American companies, a jump of 14% in units and 28% in dollars over the same quarter in 2011, according to the RIA. Orders in the first half of 2012 totaled 10,652 robots valued at $747 million, increases of 20% in units and 29% in dollars over the same period last year.
"Obviously, we’re thrilled about the great results so far this year," says Jeff Burnstein, RIA president. "The strong sales reflect increased demand for robotics in industries such as automotive, plastics and rubber, and metals. However, as the economy slows, it’s not clear that these numbers will remain as strong heading forward."
Orders for spot welding robots, used primarily in automotive solutions, jumped 68% in the first half of 2012. Other big jumps were seen in coating and dispensing (42%), arc welding (20%), and assembly (19%). Material removal orders, a smaller application area, rose 364%. Automotive-related orders accounted for 65% of units and 64% of dollars in the first half of 2012. This represents sharp gains of 44% in units and 56% in dollars over the opening half of 2011.
"It’s great that the auto-related numbers continue to post huge gains, but as we know, automotive industry purchases are cyclical," Burnstein explains. "However, we were disappointed to see nonautomotive-related orders fall 8% in units and 1% in dollars in the first half of the year, with even sharper declines in the second quarter alone."
RIA estimates that some 220,000 robots are now used in the United States, placing the US second only to Japan in robot use.
Laser developer Trumpf Inc. (Farmington, CT, and Ditzingen, Germany) has opened an Asian production facility for disk lasers at Trumpf Japan in Yokohama. Peter Leibinger, vice chairman of the managing board, officially inaugurated the new TruDisk production facility in Yokohama, which is Trumpf’s third production site for disk lasers after Schramberg, Germany, and Farmington. The disk laser’s strong international appeal generated the need for the Yokohama facility, according to Trumpf, noting high demand for disk lasers, especially when integrated into the company’s TruLaser Cell 8030 multiaxis laser cutting system that was designed specifically for the hot formed cutting market.
Helukabel USA (Elgin, IL), a provider of cable, wire and accessories for robotics, announced it has expanded its Robotic Services Division with the acquisition of Robotec Systems GmbH (Kamp-Lintfort, Germany), which will be operated as a fully owned subsidiary. Helukabel’s former robotics business unit, Helurobotics, will merge with the newly acquired subsidiary and operate under the Robotec Systems name. The new company will offer a complete range of robotic cabling services for industries relying on robots for automated work flow, including aerospace, automotive, consumer goods, food, metal fabrication, medical, pharmaceutical and packaging.
This article was first published in the September 2012 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.