(Image via Shutterstock)

There’s a renaissance underway in American manufacturing. Even as rising wages and energy costs in China are leading more U.S. companies to bring manufacturing stateside, economic indicators point towards real industrial progress. The Institute for Supply Management’s monthly Report on Business shows that 15 of 18 manufacturing industries grew in June, and a composite index based on five industry indicators shows a steady expansion in manufacturing for the 13th consecutive month.
“Now, we need to shift the conversation to what’s behind the return of the American manufacturing industry,” wrote Forbes contributor TJ McCue in a recent article. “What can be done about the decline in traditional manufacturing jobs? and … how new breakthroughs in technology can alter mainstream manufacturing and affect national competitiveness.”
The Obama administration is proposing new program that could lead to breakthroughs in manufacturing technologies. In August 2012, the President laid the early groundwork for a plan to help revitalize American manufacturing through the development of innovative technologies and processes that could address McCue’s challenge. At the center of the administration’s plan are so-called Manufacturing Innovation Institutes—public-private hubs comprised of industry leaders, universities, and the federal government working together to advance manufacturing. Funding comes from an initial government investment over five years that must be matched or exceeded by corporate and educational partners.
The administration said in 2013 that it hopes to eventually establish a network of 45 institutes across the U.S., up from its original goal of 15. Germany’s Fraunhofer Society, a similar network of 67 institutes, is a partial model for the U.S. initiative.
The federal National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining established the program with $30 million, and an additional $40 million came from partners of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII). The flagship additive manufacturing and 3D printing institute, America Makes, opened in Youngstown, Ohio in 2012.
Since then, three more Manufacturing Innovation Institutes have been announced, each geared toward a particular field of manufacturing development and funded in a similar fashion. At North Carolina State University at Raleigh, an innovation hub known as the Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute was launched in January 2014 and tasked with improving energy efficiency. N.C. State and its partners will tackle the broad challenge by advancing the technology and production of special power-oriented semiconductors to improve efficiency in applications ranging from electronic devices to electric vehicles.
President Obama followed that with a February press conference that introduced Manufacturing Innovation Institutes for Detroit and Chicago. The Michigan institute, based just west of Detroit in Canton, began operations this spring looking at lightweight materials. Chicago now houses a Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute focused on digital technology and data management advancements.
At less than four year old, the program is still in its infancy, but the initiative is drawing praise from manufacturing leaders, including Proto Labs, the technology-enabled quick-turn manufacturer of plastic and metal prototype parts I work for in Minnesota. Vicki Holt, our CEO, applauded the government’s commitment. “The future of our industry lies in the integration of hardware and advanced software to maximize the efficiency, quality and affordability of manufacturing processes,” Holt says. “Leveraging the innovation of the American software community is the key to making American manufacturing competitive once again.”
Four more Manufacturing Innovation Institutes are slated to open in 2014. The administration is pushing forward on the first one with a competition led by the Department of Energy. The competition challenged industry leaders and universities around the country to prepare bids for a Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Composites Materials and Structures. Final proposals were due by June 24.
“If we want to attract more good manufacturing jobs to America, we’ve got to make sure we’re on the cutting edge of new manufacturing techniques and technologies,” said President Obama in a February press conference. “Typically, a lot of research and development wants to be co-located with where manufacturing is taking place—because if you design something, you want to see how is it working and how is it getting made, and then tinker with it and fix it…. So if all the manufacturing is somewhere else, the lead we’ve got in terms of design and research and development, we’ll lose that too. That will start locating overseas. And we will have lost what is the single most important thing about American economy, and that is innovation.”
Bill Dietrick is Vice President of Global Marketing at Proto Labs, a maker of injection-molded and CNC-machined plastic and metal parts for prototyping and manufacturing.