In the recession that followed the dotcom crash in 2000, the United States lost 5 million manufacturing jobs and, while there has been an uptick in recent years, all indications are that they are never coming back. Manufacturing, perhaps more than any other sector, relies on deep networks of skills and assets that tend to be regional.
The consequences of this loss are deep and pervasive. Losing a significant portion of our manufacturing base has led not only to economic vulnerability, but to political polarization. Clearly, it is important to rebuild our manufacturing base. But to do that, we need to focus on new, more advanced, technologies
That's the mission of the Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) at the Department of Energy. By providing a crucial link between the cutting edge science done at the National Labs and private industry, it has been able to make considerable progress. As the collaboration between government scientists widen and deepens over time, US manufacturing may well be revived.
Linking Advanced Research to Private Industry
The origins of the Department of Energy date back to the Manhattan Project during World War II. The immense project was, in many respects, the start of "big science." Hundreds of top researchers, used to working in small labs, traveled to newly established outposts to collaborate at places like Los Alamos, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
After the war was over, the facilities continued their work and similar research centers were established to expand the effort. These National Labs became the backbone of the US government's internal research efforts. In 1977, the National Labs, along with a number of other programs, were combined to form the Department of Energy.
One of the core missions of the AMO is to link the research done at the National Labs to private industry and the Lab Embedded Entrepreneurship Programs (LEEP) have been particularly successful in this regard. Currently, there are three such programs, Cyclotron Road, Chain Reaction Innovations and Innovation Crossroads.
I was able to visit the Innovation Crossroads facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and meet the entrepreneurs in its current cohort. Each is working transform a breakthrough discovery into a market changing application, yet due to technical risk, would not be able to attract funding in the private sector. The LEEP program offers a small amount of seed money, access to lab facilities and scientific and entrepreneurial mentorship to help them get off the ground.
That's just one of the ways that the AMO opens up the resources of the National Labs. It also helps business get access to supercomputing resources (5 out of the 10 fastest computers in the world are located at the National Labs) and conducts early stage research to benefit private industry.
Leading Public-Private Consortia
Another area in which the AMO supports private industry is through taking a leading role in consortia, such as the Manufacturing Institutes that were set up to to give American companies a leg up in advanced areas such as clean energy, composite materials and chemical process intensification.
The idea behind these consortia is to create hubs that provide a critical link with government labs, top scientists at academic universities and private companies looking to solve real-world problems. It both helps firms advance in key areas and allows researchers to focus their work on areas that will have the greatest possible impact.
For example, the Critical Materials Institute (CMI) was set up to develop alternatives to materials that are subject to supply disruptions, such as the rare earth elements that are critical to many high tech products and are largely produced in China. It recently developed, along with several National Labs and Eck Industries, an advanced alloy that can replace more costly materials in components of advanced vehicles and aircraft.
"We went from an idea on a whiteboard to a profitable product in less than two years and turned what was a waste product into a valuable asset," Robert Ivester, Director of the Advanced Manufacturing Office told me.
Technology Assistance Partnerships
In 2011, the International Organization for Standardization released its ISO 50001 guidelines. Like previous guidelines that focused on quality management and environmental impact, ISO 50001 recommends best practices to reduce energy use. These can benefit businesses through lower costs and result in higher margins.
Still, for harried executives facing cutthroat competition and demanding customers, figuring out how to implement new standards can easily get lost in the mix. So a third key role that the AMO plays is to assist companies who wish to implement new standards by providing tools, guides and access to professional expertise.
The AMO offers similar support for a number of critical areas, such as prototype development and also provides energy assessment centers for firms that want to reduce costs. "Helping American companies adopt new technology and standards helps keep American manufacturers on the cutting edge," Ivester says.
"Spinning In" Rather Than Spinning Out
Traditionally we think of the role of government in business largely in terms of regulation. Legislatures pass laws and watchdog agencies enforce them so that we can have confidence in the the food we eat, the products we buy and the medicines that are supposed to cure us. While that is clearly important, we often overlook how government can help drive innovation.
Inventions spun out of government labs include the Internet, GPS and laser scanners, just to name a few. Many of our most important drugs were also originally developed with government funds. Still, traditionally the work has mostly been done in isolation and only later offered to private companies through licensing agreements.
What makes the Advanced Manufacturing Office different than most scientific programs is that it is more focused on "spinning in" private industry rather than spinning out technologies. That enables executives and entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to power them with some of the best minds and advanced equipment in the world.
As Ivester put it to me, "Spinning out technologies is something that the Department of Energy has traditionally done. Increasingly, we want to spin ideas from industry into our labs, so that companies and entrepreneurs can benefit from the resources we have here. It also helps keep our scientists in touch with market needs and helps guide their research."
Make no mistake, innovation needs collaboration. Combining the ideas from the private sector with the cutting edge science from government labs can help American manufacturing compete for the 21st century.