In the final roundtable of the Manufacturing for the Grand Challenges summit, representatives from several government agencies discussed a wide range of governmental strategies to support innovation and advanced manufacturing.
Early on, the roundtable discussion focused on the valley of death, or the “missing middle”—the gap in funding for innovative products between basic research (funded by government) and mass production (funded by the private sector).
Panelist Cheryl Martin, deputy director of ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy), said ARPA-E provides up to three years’ worth of funding for development and deployment of early state energy technologies. “We’re not going to eliminate the valley of death,” she said, “but if you’re an ARPA-E fundee, hopefully you go shooting out over the valley.”
Panelist Frank Gayle gave a presentation about the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), which was proposed by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to address the missing middle. Gayle is deputy director for the Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office in the U.S. Department of Commerce.
President Obama has launched three interim NNMI hubs and has asked Congress for funding for 45 of these centers. The NNMI hubs are intended to support partnerships among industry, government, and academia, and to fund shared-use facilities that could be used for prototyping, research, computing, demonstrations, and workforce development.
Moderator Eric Toone, director of Duke University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, brought up the topic of advanced manufacturing and jobs. “Manufacturing capabilities are up in all categories but paper, textiles, and apparel,” he said, “but jobs are falling because advanced manufacturing relies on automation.”
Both Martin and Gayle pointed out that there are other benefits to advanced manufacturing besides the number of people working in the plants. “Is every innovation that we do in advanced manufacturing driving a job? That’s not a reasonable way to think of it,” said Martin. Later she added, “It’s very complex. Every day, people make things happen that weren’t possible the day before. We need to think about things very flexibly.”
Gayle said, “There are societal benefits. Besides retaining jobs, the economic sector of the nation is dependent on a strong manufacturing base. The Department of Defense doesn’t want to depend on advanced products made in other countries.”
Panelist Alex Dehgan, science and technology advisor to the administrator at USAID, painted a picture of the future of advanced manufacturing and the global economy, with distributed work models and global co-creation. “We need to create modular systems or centers that are adaptable,” he said. “These kinds of centers will give us the diversity that will allow us to adapt to the global challenges we see in the future.”
Dehgan also talked about the democratization of science and technology, pointing out that there are 700 million cell phones in Africa and there are more Twitter users in some developing countries than in the United States.
“Technology is lowering barriers for people to be involved,” he said. “There are these communities and opportunities that could shift how we think about manufacturing in the developing world. Not just fabricating, but coalitions of researchers working together. We don’t need to repeat the last hundred years of industrialization. It’s about rethinking those assumptions.”
Toone asked the panelists and the 145 conference participants for ideas for improving K-12 education, to prepare students for the jobs of the future. Dehgan suggested, “We need to see a shift in our education system—a problem-focused approach. We’re missing the Grand Challenges, the problem set that inspires the students.”
The Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century are a list of 14 challenges—such as providing energy from fusion and developing carbon sequestration methods—that was created in 2008 by a committee organized by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). Participants said they’ve seen how the Grand Challenges inspire university engineering students.
Gayle agreed, saying, “For real people, inspiration is the name of the game.”
A conference participant suggested that K-12 students need to spend more time doing hands-on science and technology activities. Toone said, “The more standards and tests, the less time to build robots.”
Near the end of the discussion, a conference participant wondered whether it might be a good idea to change the name “advanced manufacturing” because of the old connotations of the type of work manufacturing entails.
“That’s an interesting thought,” Gayle said. “It brings up ‘dirty, dark, and dangerous.’”
Dehgan said, “You’re right. How do you explain the continuum and what’s possible? Maker Faires, fab labs. . . . There’s incredible enthusiasm depending on how it’s pitched.”
Martin said, “Think about everything we can do to make it exciting. We shouldn’t lose the fact that we can paint a picture of magic for kids.”
Download Frank Gayle's PowerPoint presentation (PDF)