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Advanced Technologies for Growth and Talent


Sridhar Kota









  By Sridhar Kota, Herrick Professor of
Engineering, Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Director, MForesight: 
Alliance for Manufacturing Foresight, 
The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Being the best in scientific discoveries and engineering inventions is critical but not sufficient to thrive in the global economy. Invent here, manufacture elsewhere is not sustainable. America’s comparative advantage in high-technology products—engineered and manufactured by our world-class engineers and highly skilled workers—is the only sustainable model that has ever worked.

Manufacturing and innovation are intricately linked. Failure to manufacture high technology products risks our ability to innovate next-generation products. It is therefore critical that we establish the needed infrastructure, knowledge and skills needed to mature emerging technologies and their manufacturing readiness to increase the likelihood that the technology is ultimately scaled in the US, creating jobs and a cycle of innovation.

The National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, which was announced by President Obama in 2012 and now consists of eight institutes, is meant to bridge the gap between science and manufacturing by investing in R&D to mature and de-risk new technologies. About a year ago, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recommended that the federal government establish an independent national consortium (a technology think-tank) to identify emerging technologies and broader challenges in advanced manufacturing to keep abreast of technology opportunities.Photo Courtesy of FIRST

In response to PCAST’s recommendation, the National Science Foundation and National Institute for Science and Technology issued an open solicitation. In October 2015, the federal government awarded a team at the University of Michigan a $6 million seed grant to establish MForesight, which is tasked with identifying emerging technologies and opportunities in advanced manufacturing technologies that will enhance the country’s innovation ecosystem, manufacturing competitiveness, and national security.

Serving as the voice of the broader manufacturing community, MForesight is focused on predicting future critical needs in advanced manufacturing as well as addressing broader challenges and opportunities in education, workforce development and technology commercialization. Thirty national thought leaders from across industry and academia have joined MForesight’s Leadership Council. Additional details can be found at

One of the tasks of MForesight is to provide Rapid Response Reports to federal agencies on topics of their priority. Within the first two months, MForesight developed two such reports in response to collective requests from federal agencies—one on “Engineering Biology” and other on “Bio-manufacturing for Regenerative Medicine.”

Recently the White House Office of Science and Technology asked MForesight to investigate ways to “Democratize Manufacturing” to a wide range of innovators, entrepreneurs, and small and medium-sized business. The goal is to identify technologies that can lower barriers to small-lot manufacturing in the quantities of 1000-10,000 units in the US. MForesight also plans to announce an open White Paper Competition soliciting ideas on hardware for physical production, novel process technologies, software for design/machine interfaces and new business models.


Key to Workforce Development

MForesight is also making strides to identify best practices in education and workforce development at all levels. To re-establish our strength as creators and producers of advanced technology values, we need to inspire our youth and revitalize our engineering community.

While US high schools commonly require students to dissect a frog, hardly any require students to disassemble a power tool. No matter their age, empowering students to take things like power tools apart can engage them in design, materials, manufacturing, and safety challenges by tapping into the curiosity and creativity that many children naturally have. Such exposure to real-world engineering will inspire our youth to attend a four-year degree college to become an engineer or pursue vocational training, without feeling like a second-class intellect, and to master the advanced manufacturing trades (ex. CNC machining) that are desperately needed in industry.

The recent emergence of the “Maker Movement” is having a phenomenal influence on American youth. Maker Faires bring together science, art, crafts, and engineering in a fun, energized and exciting public forum. FIRST Robotics is an outstanding example of a successful inspirational extracurricular program. We need to bring this type of education and experience into mainstream K-12 curriculum.

There’s a paradox inherent in America’s manufacturing prospects. Owing to a proud national tradition as a manufacturing power, Americans not only believe that the sector is important for economic competitiveness but actually prefer to see manufacturing jobs created in their communities above jobs in any other sector.

Yet, puzzlingly, relatively few Americans are personally interested in manufacturing careers. Only half of Americans recently surveyed by Deloitte reported believing manufacturing jobs can be interesting and rewarding, and just one in three parents reported that they would encourage their children to pursue work in a manufacturing field. Most troubling, manufacturing registers dead last among fields in which millennials reported wanting to build their careers.

What accounts for this disconnect? If Americans understand the importance of creating products to creating strong national, regional, and local economies, why is there so little interest in manufacturing as a vocation?

It’s a question of perception. The account that manufacturing is “dark, dangerous, and dirty” persists with most American adults. Today, however, more and more factories look like clean rooms or Silicon Valley R&D centers. The key to reversing the perception is to give kids first-hand experience visiting factories and meeting manufacturing workers.

Michigan’s Mac Arthur Corporation recently organized and implemented a Manufacturing Day field trip event, bringing 75 young students to visit their campus. The event was not only participatory but also directly linked to the Common Core curriculum. Students produced art that they developed with machine tools and got to take home. The whole operation came to less than $500—not including staff time.

These field trips turn into internships for high school students and then careers. They also bring exposure to parents. The premise is simple: kids need to see the careers before they can aspire to them. There’s major opportunity to train counselors to organize trips and create coordinated programs among school districts and companies to facilitate it.

Apprenticeships are the original model of “work and learn” since medieval times. Businesses have the opportunity to partner with both high schools and community colleges to get students working up to four hours a day for a partial wage while also gaining classroom knowledge. Apprentices offer real, bankable knowledge and skill as well as a clear pathway to a career.

Perhaps the big challenge now is restoring the requisite coursework and classroom time to offer “shop class” in middle schools and high schools for woodworking, CNC machines, laser cutters, auto mechanics, CAD, etc.

There’s a significant opportunity for manufacturing industries to act in their own interest by helping to fund and implement shop classes in the school districts in which they are active. If school districts do not have needed funding, industries can make a strategic investment in the talent pipeline through these programs.

Only when the United States starts to generate a new pipeline for a skilled workforce at all levels—from skilled production workers to talented engineers equipped with hands-on and analytical skills—will the country regain its lock on its position at the forefront of technological innovation and high-tech manufacturing and foster future economic and national security.

This article was first published in the May 2016 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Read “Advanced Technologies for Growth and Talent” as a PDF.

Published Date : 5/1/2016

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