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National Network for Manufacturing Innovation

March 31, 2012

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 16:23

Earlier this month, the White House announced new efforts to support manufacturing innovation. Central to the announcement is a proposed investment of $1 billion for a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. It would involve up to 15 Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation across the U.S., each one serving as a regional hub of manufacturing excellence. A pilot institute will be launched using $45 million of existing resources from the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce, and the National Science Foundation.

The plan is expected to bring together industry, universities, community colleges, federal agencies, and states to accelerate innovation. It hopes to 1) bridge the gap between basic research and product development, 2) provide shared assets to help small manufacturers access cutting-edge capabilities and equipment, and 3) create an unparalleled environment to educate and train students and the workforce in advanced manufacturing skills. The press release states that this model has been successfully deployed in other countries and represents a gap in U.S. manufacturing innovation.

The White House presented three broad areas of opportunities, one of which is 3D printing (aka, additive manufacturing). In my opinion, this is big, and it is likely the first time any Administration in Washington has acknowledged the existence of the technology. The announcement underscores the importance of refining standards, materials, and equipment for 3D printing to enable low-cost, small batch production using digital designs that can be transmitted from designers located anywhere.

The other two areas of opportunity cited in the announcement: 1) the development of lightweight materials, such as low-cost carbon fiber composites that improve fuel efficiency, performance, and corrosion resistance for next generation automobiles, aircraft, ships and trains, and 2) creating a smart manufacturing infrastructure and approaches that make real-time use of “big data” flows from fully-instrumented plants in order to improve productivity, optimize supply chains, and improve the use of energy, water, and materials. Interestingly, additive manufacturing technology can also play a significant role in these two areas.

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, I believe this announcement is very important. It brings much-needed attention to product development and manufacturing and proposes a way to invigorate an industry that could use a boost. Converting raw materials of relatively low value into products of relatively high value is a way of creating wealth for organizations, individuals, and entire nations. I applaud the White House for this initiative.