Recently in Nashville at the Industrial and Systems Engineering Research Conference (ISERC), I had the honor of chairing a national panel titled, “Discussion on the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI).”

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The motivation for the panel was to address the new NNMI program that President Obama formally proposed on March 12, 2012. The President’s proposal called for a joint federal effort between the DoD, DoE, NSF and NIST to create a network of 15 regional Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs), funded by a one-time investment of $1 billion carried out over a period of 10 years.

President Obama’s fiscal year 2014 budget formally requested $1 billion in congressional funding for the NNMI. On July 30, 2013, President Obama called for tripling the proposed number of IMIs established throughout the country from 15 to 45. It was clear that manufacturing was becoming a national focus and one of the few topics that our federal representatives could support.

The NNMI is modeled after the Fraunhofer Institutes of Germany. According to the original proposal, it will consist of up to 15 linked IMIs with unique research concentrations that will serve as regional manufacturing innovation hubs. Each IMI will be independently run by a nonprofit organization and will form a public-private partnership designed to leverage existing resources and promote collaboration and co-investment between industry, universities and government.

Speakers on the ISERC panel in Nashville included Dr. Janis Terpenny (Joseph Walkup Professor and Chair, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Iowa State University) and Dr. Paul Cohen (Edgar Woolard Distinguished Professor and Head of the Edward Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NC State). The panelists provided an overview of the status of the NNMI initiative, including the progress of the awards for the program and the technical focus of the types of manufacturing that have been proposed and supported.

There are currently five announced Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation and two new or expected institutes. Part of the requirements for the IMIs is that the federal government will provide up to 50 percent of the funding, and the IMIs must secure the remainder of the support from state and local governments or private sector sponsorship. Each institute is funded by $70 million from the Defense Department and $70 million in non-federal resources. Participants in the NNMI must find matching support for research that will be supported by the IMIs.

The first IMI, America Makes, was established in Youngstown, Ohio, and is focused on the new manufacturing technology of 3D printing. America Makes has been in operation for more than two years focusing on enabling the use of this new technology for commercial products. One if its objectives is to reduce the cost of 3D printing, while connecting small businesses like rp+m and M7 with new opportunities, and training American workers to master these sophisticated new technologies. America Makes has research underway that will help accelerate the speed of 3D printing in metals by a factor of 10. The institute is working to provide more than 1,000 schools with access to 3D printers, and has launched new workforce training programs that have trained over 7,000 workers in the fundamentals of 3D printing [1].

The second IMI was announced at NC State. Power America, the Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute, an energy research consortium to be led by NC State is focused on making wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductor technologies cost-competitive with the silicon-based power electronics that are currently used. Power America is establishing a collaborative community that will create, showcase, and deploy new power electronic capabilities, products, and processes that can impact commercial production, build workforce skills, enhance manufacturing capabilities, and foster long-term economic growth in the region and across the nation.

The third IMI is the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII). DMDII is a unique public-private partnership acting as a world-class, first-of-its-kind manufacturing hub. Based in Chicago, the DMDII has the capabilities and collaborative expertise to transform American manufacturing with its focus on design and automation. Headed by UI Labs, DMDII is comprised of 73 participating businesses, universities and organizations including Cincinnati Inc., a machine tool company based in Harrison, Ohio.

The fourth is the Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation Institute (ACMII). ACMII focuses on advanced fiber-reinforced polymer composites, which combine strong fibers with tough plastics, that are lighter and stronger than steel. It also looks into minimizing the cost curve for these materials to enable their use for a broader range of products, including lightweight vehicles with record-breaking fuel economy, lighter and longer wind turbine blades, high pressure tanks for natural gas-fueled cars, and lighter, more efficient industrial equipment.

The fifth IMI will expand the use of lightweight, high-performing metals. The American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute (ALMMII) will be jointly led by Ohio State University, the University of Michigan and Edison Welding Institute of Columbus, Ohio.

The IMIs define their own administrative structure, and actively solicit participating members from industry, academe and government. Again, each IMI has its own rules, policies and costs associated with membership. Most of the IMIs are expert in a specific manufacturing technology, and have as a common objective to advance the role of this type of manufacturing in the U.S. and world economy. The principle focus of the developmental needs for the IMIs has been on the “valley of death,” the period of technology that occurs after a method has been demonstrated but before it has been commercially established. This is an area in which the U.S. has not done as well as other countries, requiring more attention and governmental support to maintain U.S. competitiveness.

Dr. Cohen of NC State spoke about how universities and colleges can benefit from these activities while still providing quality manufacturing instruction. He indicated that several engineering departments at NC State have been involved in the IMIs, and that the NC State Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering was the central research partner for Power America. The university’s Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering is also a partner in Power America as well as in America Makes. One of the projects from America Makes focuses on the finishing of metal parts that have been 3D printed at NC State. New automation technology has been applied so that the parts can be digitally finished on Computer Numerically Controlled Machining Centers so that the planning for manufacturing time can be almost completely eliminated. During the panel discussion, Dr. Cohen spoke to other university professors about how they can get involved in this important program.

Dr. Terpenny spoke about Iowa State’s involvement in these IMIs, noting that ISU is a partner in America Makes, the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), and the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation. She indicated that ISU strongly encouraged her to participate in NNMI, and helped to secure matching financial support. The university has already received more than $7 million for research efforts connected to the program, and both ISU and the state of Iowa feel that it has strengthened their competitiveness in manufacturing innovation.

While each IMI has its own unique focus and structure of how it plans on succeeding in growing its overall impact on its respective industrial focus, it’s clear that when looking at the institutes as a whole, they will have equally critical roles in ensuring the sustainability of manufacturing in the United States. The key is effective and ongoing collaboration between public and private entities, and securing the necessary funding to make certain that these relatively new programs become firmly entrenched as pillars of industrial innovation for the United States and its manufacturers to draw from for many years to come.

1. White House Brief, Office of the Press Secretary, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/09/fact-sheet-president-obama-announces-new-manufacturing-innovation-hub-kn

Dr. Richard A. Wysk is the Dopaco Distinguished Professor at NC State’s Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

His research and teaching interests are in the general area of Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) and medical device design and manufacturing. In particular, he is interested in lean manufacturing, product/process engineering, Computer-Aided Manufacturing, Flexible Manufacturing Systems planning, design and control, and most recently, the engineering and manufacturing of medical products, including regenerative medical products. Dr. Wysk is an IIE Fellow, an SME Fellow, a member of Sigma Xi, and a member of Alpha Pi Mu and Tau Beta Pi. He is the recipient of the IIE Region III Award for Excellence, the SME Outstanding Young Manufacturing Engineer Award, the IIE David F. Baker Distinguished Research Award and the IIE Albert Holzman Outstanding Educator Award. He has also served on the faculties of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Texas A&M University where he held the Royce Wisenbaker Chair in Innovation.