December 5, 2016

Despite the shifting political landscape that always accompanies an election year, U.S. policymakers and industry face a clear decision point: Invest in smart manufacturing and R&D now, or fall behind our global competitors.

I witnessed firsthand the robust international efforts to develop smart manufacturing technology during a recent visit to the United Kingdom, where I toured the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and the Manufacturing Technology Centre, two of the centers the country has set up as part of its Catapult network to drive technological innovation. Similarly, Asian countries like Singapore and China are investing in disruptive technologies to drive down the cost of manufacturing and increase efficiency.

Industry has the choice of where to make investments in smart manufacturing innovation. Companies are investing heavily alongside government partners in the U.K., Germany, Singapore, and China. Thanks to backing from the U.S. government, there’s an opportunity to invest in our own manufacturing networks and institutes—like Manufacturing USA and the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII). Committing to these domestic organizations is essential if we’re to remain at the forefront of the manufacturing revolution.

On Wednesday I discussed this topic with a panel of industry experts convened by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a nonpartisan think tank that promotes policies related to innovation. Joining me on the panel were leaders from Autodesk, United Technologies Research Center, and ITIF. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware also participated, providing keynote remarks.

Photo credit: ITIF

The event addressed how smart manufacturing will shape the future of U.S. manufacturing competitiveness, and which public policies are necessary to maintain our place as a global leader.

Stephen Ezell, the author of a report released in conjunction with the ITIF event, defines smart manufacturing as the “application of information technology to every facet of the modern manufacturing production process.” Although manufacturing generates more data than any other sector of the economy, few companies have the resources and know-how to harness it.

Remaining competitive on the world stage requires federal investment in U.S. manufacturing and R&D to develop smart manufacturing technologies that utilize the available data, and get them onto shop floors. We need to accelerate innovation and shift the way we approach R&D. Manufacturing USA, a network that today comprises nine federally funded institutes, is one powerful example of federal support for advancing the technological frontiers of the industry.

The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, a UI LABS collaboration, is part of that network. DMDII brings together more than 300 partners from across industry, universities, government, and startups to define problems within manufacturing. Through research and development, we’re designing solutions using digital technology and demonstrating their impact in a real-world environment.

By leveraging private sector commitments against federal dollars, we’ve invested nearly $60 million (and counting) across 35 projects that harness the collaborative power of DMDII’s diverse network. Our first four projects came to completion this fall, producing technological solutions to address inefficiencies and challenges facing the industry. We’re also actively engaged in workforce initiatives to ensure that small and medium-sized manufacturers and American workers are equipped with the skills and knowledge to use the newly developed tools. Our 24,000 square foot manufacturing floor illustrates to visitors a modern manufacturing environment and serves as a test bed for our partners to demonstrate the digital thread at work.

DMDII is committed to transforming American manufacturing and guiding our partners toward innovation, and as a country, we need to continue investing in these types of efforts.

“If we’re to remain the world’s leading and most competitive economy, we have more work to do. We have to increase federal support for initiatives that get technology and R&D from the lab—whether national labs or private labs—to the marketplace,” said Sen. Coons during his keynote remarks. He named strong trade enforcement, apprenticeships and training, and the Manufacturing USA network as necessary policy priorities for the government.

At DMDII, we’ve seen the value of federal support for R&D and the collaborative innovation underway at our Institute. In order to remain competitive on the world stage, we need to continue to invest in smart manufacturing as a country—otherwise, we’ll be left behind.

A recording of the ITIF panel discussion is available on the organization’s website

Cover photo credit: ITIF