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BIG M 2014: Why Manufacturers Ought to be Institutionalized

National Network of Manufacturing Institutes leaders answer questions at The Big M event

 Michael C. Anderson



Michael C. Anderson
Senior Editor

The questions began in 2013, when President Obama announced his plan to solidify and expand the nation’s expertise and capacity for advanced manufacturing technologies through the creation of a National Network of Manufacturing Institutes (NNMI).

They continued when his administration used existing funds from four federal agencies to launch the National Additive Manufacturing Institute (NAMII—now called “America Makes”) in Youngstown, OH as a pilot Institute for Manufacturing Innovation (IMI). In May 2013, the Obama administration reported that it would establish three additional IMIs using existing funding from five federal agencies: the Departments of Defense, Commerce, and Energy, NASA and the National Science Foundation. As with NAMII, each of the new IMIs would have a unique focus.

And the questions multiplied when the administration asked Congress to help create 15 IMIs, then announced a goal of creating a total of 45 of them over the next decade.

Attendees of The Big M event at Detroit’s Cobo Center were able to get some of those questions answered on Thursday, when leaders of the four established IMIs sat down with moderator Thomas Kurfess (Georgia Institute of Technology) to discuss “Emerging Advanced Manufacturing Technologies in the US.” Edward Morris, Director, America Makes; Dennis Kekas, Executive Director, Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute (now called “Power America”); Alan Taub, CTO, American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovations Institute (ALMMII); and William King, CTO, Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) each explained their institute’s mission and progress to date and as a group fielded questions from Kurfess and the audience. Here’s a sample of them.

Internationals in the Institute?

Each IMI is a public-private partnership between government agencies, research universities and businesses—including multinational businesses. The question was asked: Given that the mission of each is to develop technologies and jobs for domestic manufacturing, how is that inclusion being handled, and how will the Network play in the global market?

The Big M - NNMI Symposium

Even while posing the question, Kurfess pointed out that, for example, US-based GE has a large presence internationally, and that Honda’s North American manufacturing presence means it is exporting more cars from the US than it is importing to here, so the question is more complicated that one might suppose. ALMMI’s Taub explained that “What we did in this initial stage of forming the institute, was to tell internationals that approached us that they had to have an actual North American manufacturing presence—not just a sales office or an R&D facility—in order to become a formal partner with us.” He said that all of the IMIs will collectively figure out how to evolve beyond that—it’s still early days.

Power America’s Kekas noted that his organization includes Toshiba and ABB, concurred, adding that “At the end of the day, we want to be on a level playing field globally. That’s why we put an emphasis on cost structure.” If you can be cost-competitive in everything you do, he said, then you’ll find the level in the global marketplace at which you can thrive.

DMDII’s King agreed, saying that he firmly believes that digital manufacturing is going to “sweep across the world of manufacturing,” transforming it. “So the only open question is, who will benefit? And our answer is, it should be our membership that benefits.”

Finite Funding Fears

Kurfess saved the question he thought was weighing the most on listeners’ minds until the end: What happens to these institutions when the government funding—always meant to be temporary—comes to a stop in a few short years?

All four panelists gave specific variations of the same answer: In Taub’s words, “We’ll need to do what any organization needs to do—bring value to our customers or go bankrupt.”

The most authoritative answer came from Morris of America Makes, however. America Makes, he reminded the audience, is being led by his employer, another public-private organization: the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM). And not by accident. “NCDMM too began with public funds, which were in place for the first three years of its existence. NCDMM is now almost 11 years old. It was able to make that transition successfully.” NCDMM, he continued, didn’t suddenly go from “spend-spend-spend” on the government’s dime to suddenly seeking new revenue streams; they were ready when the time came, and built on their record of solving problems for partners and customers. “American Makes is following that same model: creating value for its partners.”

Morris broadened the point to the entire network: Looking at all of our road maps, he said, and "it’s clear that there are plenty of challenges for the IMIs to engage with—more than five government-funded years’ worth. “There’s a lot more that will to be done,” he said. ME

Published Date : 6/12/2014

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