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Will U.S. get serious about leadership in future tech?

Brett Brune
By Brett Brune Editor in Chief, Smart Manufacturing

The U.S. needs to build a national infrastructure in engineering and manufacturing R&D that parallels its scientific infrastructure.

While it makes all the sense in the world, it is not happening.

China, Germany, Japan and South Korea are, however, making it happen.

Those nations have “big ideas, big strategies. They are not standing still,” Sridhar Kota, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan and Executive Director of MForesight, said in an interview with Smart Manufacturingmagazine. “So the onus is really on us.”

Kota knows the global scene like the back of his hand: He served as the first assistant director for advanced manufacturing in President Barack Obama’s first term. In doing so, he initiated and championed the idea of creating the manufacturing innovation institutes that are now in place. He also orchestrated the National Robotics Initiative, and the National Digital Design and Manufacturing initiative.

To create what he calls “an insurance policy to make sure the great ideas that are coming out of our research will trickle down to help the economy and national security,” the U.S. would do well to invest $7 billion a year in engineering and manufacturing R&D, he suggested.

Germany’s total science and technology budget is “about a quarter of what we spend,” he said, but Germany invests six times as much as the U.S. does in engineering and manufacturing research. “And you see similar investment trends in Japan and South Korea.”

Investing $7 billion a year would show the U.S. is “serious about leadership in future technologies and in national security, in engineering and manufacturing R&D,” Kota said.

“There should be an appetite for this because manufacturing is one of the few topics that actually has bipartisan support,” he added. “We need bold steps and investments that are proportional to the challenges we are facing right now.”

The “invent here and manufacture there” paradigm of the last two decades is already morphing into “invent there, manufacture there”—as “U.S. manufacturers are now steadily establishing R&D activities offshore, just to be close to the factories where the new products and processes are being developed,” Kota said.

If the U.S. continues to cede to others leadership in future technologies, this will only be cemented.

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