America Makes is the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute that was launched in August 2012. It is the first in a series of institutes in the U.S. and is a part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) that the White House and many government agencies are supporting. Each institute seeks to expand specific areas of underdeveloped manufacturing technology from private-public partnerships on a national scale.
The underlying goal of the innovation institutes is to transition promising developments in manufacturing from a technology readiness level (TRL) 4 to TRL 7. The TRL measure is a way of gauging the current state of a particular technology. TRL 1 is usually a concept at the basic research level, whereas TRL 9 is a fully-qualified production process suitable for commercialization. Historically, much of what is developed in the U.S. progresses to about a TRL 3, and does not bridge the “valley of death” to TRL 7. The NNMI was largely created to solve this problem.
To achieve success, a national innovation institute must have stakeholders. America Makes recently completed its second year in operation and can claim nearly 110 member organizations. America Makes director Ed Morris, founding director Ralph Resnick, and their team have done an outstanding job in attracting some of the most important organizations to America Makes. We are optimistic that many more will join in the coming months and look forward to much more growth. Wohlers Associates is proud to be one of eight Platinum Members, which is the top-tier membership level.
Much of the work in the first two years has been in creating a solid foundation with staffing, systems, and strategies for the years to follow. America Makes has been successful in awarding projects to many organizations. In January 2014, it awarded a second round of 15 projects to 75 individual partner organizations. Combined with the first round of projects, America Makes has invested nearly $30 million in public and private funds toward advancing additive manufacturing and 3D printing in the U.S.
Is America Makes meeting its objectives? In some ways, it is exceeding them, given that only two years have passed. No one knew how this first (pilot) institute would take shape and whether corporations, universities, and others would embrace it. Sponsorship of more than 100 organizations, as well as the support and involvement of many government entities (Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and others), is impressive. The bigger question that we cannot yet answer is whether the NNMI institutes will make a difference in the long term. We are optimistic that they will, but it’s much too early to know for sure.