The Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT) consortium recently opened a new $148 million, 100,000-square-foot innovation acceleration center in Detroit to serve as its headquarters going forward. In a conversation with Industry Today, the organization's Executive Director, Lawrence E. Brown, talks about the regional and national impact he expects LIFT to have, and expands upon the importance of innovation centers like their own to the future of U.S. manufacturing. Steve Engelhardt reports.
The founding of ALMMII is the result of a unique public and private collaboration; a dynamic that is becoming increasingly present within progress made across the sector. Federally funded through the Office of Naval Research, the organization was founded through a joint partnership of the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, and EWI, an independent research and development organization based in Columbus, Ohio.
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“In order to secure the designation for our institute and the subsequent funding that comes along with it, it had to be run through a non-profit entity,” Brown says, adding, “I was formerly with EWI at the time, and with the two universities, we came together and formed LIFT.” Upon submitting a proposal defined by a five-year plan of action, the group was selected to run the Lightweight and Modern Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute (LM3I), serving as one of the five institutes set up by the U.S. government last year as a way of maintaining America’s manufacturing leadership.
And now, with a headquarters established in a city with deep ties to the history of U.S. manufacturing, Brown says he and the rest of his partners and members are ready to take their work to another level. Having a physical presence with respect to advancing lightweight metals manufacturing marks an important moment for the future of American manufacturing jobs and the security of our country,” while adding, “Taking weight out of vehicles that move people and goods and carry out military missions is a national imperative, because as we succeed, we will be saving energy, saving money, and enable job creation.”
Brown says that when putting together the program, he and his team established three pillars from which they would focus their efforts on.
The first, he says is the fostering and development of innovative technology within academic institutions that can minimize risk for manufacturers looking to implement them into their workplace. “Too often, the work done by our universities don’t see the light of day on the manufacturing floor, because the industry is often apprehensive about trying to mature and incorporate the specific technology on their own,” he says, adding, “Now, with federal funding in place, that will be channeled through a public and private collaboration, our institute will look to bridge the gap between industry and academia, and act as a resource for both sides to utilize.”
Which leads to the institute’s second pillar—ensuring that the technology developed can effectively transition into specific industries and be applicable right away. “So often technology is developed with a general goal in mind, but no direct destination, with respect to how it will specifically and efficiently fit into a given industry or product,” he says, adding, “Our goal is to foster innovative technology for lightweight metals that has a direct purpose and can quickly be transitioned into manufacturing.”
Technology is key, but as an aging manufacturing workforce begins to retire over the next decade, the presence of a skilled youth generation to step in and fill their ranks is just as important. “Our third pillar thus is to greatly enhance the educational and workforce development dynamics currently available to our youth,” he says, adding, “Fostering innovation is great, but if we don’t have workers who can understand and effectively utilize it, then we will have missed our ‘train’, so to speak.”
Although based in Detroit, Brown says the organization’s objectives focus on a five state region that includes Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, with the eventual goal of taking the research and advancements made in these states and applying them on a national scale as well. “It’s a strategic decision, because if you look across these five states, you’ll notice that from a metalworking standpoint, over 50 percent of the industry’s jobs are based within them,” he says, adding, “and what that means is that you have a massive workforce that is already well-versed in the skills of welding, casting, bending, forming, and more, which will allow us to have a much more immediate impact.”
Manufacturing in the U.S. has always been a staple of American culture, beginning with the establishment of the first cotton spinning mill in Rhode Island in the late 18th century, continuing through the coal and steel booms in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, and the rise of the automotive industry in Michigan in the 20th century. In fact, as we stand in 2015, this trend has continued and accelerated to the point that, if the United States manufacturing sector stood on its own, it would represent the 8th largest economy in the world today.
And Brown says the presence of innovation centers like LIFT is key to continuing this success long into the future. “This country was built on manufacturing and doing things hands-on, because when you manufacture, you also open yourself up to innovation,” he says, adding, “Manufacturing is central to the wellbeing of the country, economically and militarily, and if we do not scale up the our skills in such, we may find ourselves owing to other nations.”
But he’s extremely confident going forward, and is excited to take the challenge head on. “Outside of Detroit, we have a number of other sites and partners located throughout the country that we will be working with as well to effectively meet the goals, mission, and overall vision of our LIFT program for lightweight metals advanced manufacturing.”
For more information, visit www.lift.technology.