April 4, 2012 Forum

Manufacturing Is Job One

The final forum of the spring term highlighted the re-energizing of manufacturing, and featured Dr. Ben Wang, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Industrial & Systems Engineering and executive director of the university’s Manufacturing Research Center (MaRC).

Several factors, he noted, account for manufacturing’s significance in our economy.  It produces 70 percent of U.S. exports and boasts a potent multiplier effect in employment—one manufacturing assembly job generates 10 jobs in the wider realm.  Also, two-thirds of U.S. scientists and engineers are employed in manufacturing.  And it reflects a high degree of innovation—90 percent of U.S. patents are related to manufacturing, he said.  All in all, it affects policy, defense, infrastructure, employment, and education, as well as technology.

Maintaining manufacturing’s strength and status is a major effort of Georgia Tech, Wang observed, which wants to create “a community of interdisciplinary experts passionate about driving innovations into manufacturing in order to solve grand challenges for the enhancement of the nation’s wealth, competitiveness and security.”  Doing so will “amplify Georgia Tech’s global reputation as the world leader in innovation-driven manufacturing,” he said.

Georgia Tech’s many academic units and research centers all tie into manufacturing in some fashion, ranging from robotics to nanotechnology to industrial design to public policy, Wang observed.  The university can further raise the visibility of manufacturing via colloquiums, global forums, workshops, and more student engagement.

The Obama administration’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP), announced in June 2011, is designed to reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing competitiveness and create high-quality jobs, said Wang.  Its steering committee comprises six universities, including Georgia Tech, and a dozen CEOs.  It identified five “workstreams”: (1) advanced manufacturing technology development, (2) shared infrastructure and facilities, (3) policy, (4) education and workforce development, and (5) communication and outreach.  The AMP has held four regional meetings attracting hundreds of attendees, said Wang, adding that its top recommendations are to improve the business climate, secure the talent pipeline, and enable innovation.

Continuing on a broader dimension, Wang said the United States has been the “first mover” of many new technologies but has lost ground in the market, and industry has not fully captured payoffs from federal investments in research.  One response involves the national Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which is changing its focus, he said, and becoming more “innovation-centric.”

In regard to bridging the gap between academia and industry, he sketched out what he called “the collaboratory,” a collocation of academic, industry, and government experts that could team up to rapidly insert new technologies having a compelling business case.  Firms could collaborate on production scale-up and compete on product design and post-sale services.  He envisioned this concept providing a breeding ground for new ideas, a proving ground for new technologies, and a training ground for new leaders.

Looking ahead, Wang predicted ultra-lightweight engineered systems will become ubiquitous, appearing in everything from vehicles to infrastructure to sporting goods.  And he suggested the greatest improvements in performance and value ultimately will come from nanomaterials as manufacturing moves from the micro level to the nano level.

The event’s discussant was Chris Downing who heads the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) based in Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2).  Manufacturing, he said, is part of the university’s lifeblood; indeed, the school was established in 1885 to bolster Georgia’s manufacturing sector.  Today, GaMEP serves the state’s diverse industrial base in several crucial areas—from new product development to lean manufacturing to sustainability—and taps the expertise at MaRC, EI2, the Georgia Tech Research Institute, and other campus-based resources.

The Innovations in Economic Development Forum is presented each semester by Georgia Tech’s program in Science, Technology and Information Policy (STIP), a joint initiative of the university’s Enterprise Innovation Institute and School of Public Policy. Free and open to the public, it brings together faculty, researchers, students, economic developers, and policymakers to discuss leading-edge ideas and practices in economic development and innovation policy. For upcoming forums and videos and presentations from past forums go to the STIP website at stip.gatech.edu.