Innovation in industrial processes that use energy or are used by the energy industry would strengthen U.S. manufacturing and hasten progress toward national economic, workforce, security, and environmental goals. The five Manufacturing USA innovation institutes sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) could be instrumental tools in accelerating these forms of innovation.
Founded over the last three years, the institutes bring together novel configurations of players in the public and private sectors who have generally not worked together in the past. They are now executing the agendas that their members have created, but face the looming challenge of securing stable, permanent support.
On May 16, 2018, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) held an event for the release of a new report that both reviews the progress of Manufacturing USA institutes and looks ahead to their future. At the event, the report authors presented their findings and proposed recommendations, with an expert discussion on policy options to guide the institutes’ next stage of evolution following.
Report co-author Peter L. Singer, policy advisor at the MIT Washington Office, gave audience members a comprehensive overview of Manufacturing USA’s purpose. Manufacturing is a massive industry, but the sector’s competitiveness has declined over the past 15 years. The DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office was thus created to improve productivity, the leverage of U.S. resources, technologies’ transition into the market, and workforce efficiency. Manufacturing USA institutes help achieve these goals with institutes throughout the United States—including facilities in North Carolina, New York, and California, for example. Each institute has its own cooperative agreement with the DOE, so management structure and intellectual property rules vary by each one.
Singer’s co-author, ITIF Senior Fellow David M. Hart, spoke next. Hart spoke on the institutes’ importance, emphasizing that institutional innovation in such an important sector could have groundbreaking positive impacts on the country. He did note that while results look promising now, not all institutes may ultimately be successful. However, though the experiment is relatively young, he believes it is important to continue support for the programs, so they can reach full potential.
Hart then presented a few of the report’s recommendations on how to help the institutes succeed. First, Congress should continue to fund the institutes that have already been established. Second, DOE should give institutes greater flexibility in raising and using private-sector funding. Third, Congress and DOE should provide opportunities for the institutes to receive federal funding beyond the current limit of five years. Hart emphasized that it may be difficult to become fully funded by the private sector after the fifth year. Fourth, the institutes should intensify their outreach to small and medium-sized manufacturers and develop more education and training programs for workers. Fifth, DOE should focus more on informing the public on the institutes’ energy-specific missions.
Following Hart, Gina Oliver, senior director of automotive plastics at the American Chemistry Council, spoke on her experience working with a Manufacturing USA institute—specifically the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) in Tennessee. Oliver agreed with the report’s recommendation that DOE explore how it could make institutes sustainable past the fifth year. In addition, she would like to see more flexibility in regard to private sector work with the institutes and continued funding and protection of member investments.
Alain Charles, vice president at Infineon Technologies Americas Corp., discussed his experiences working with the Power America institute in North Carolina. He noted that the Manufacturing USA institute has allowed his company to build its network. In particular, he values the annual meeting where institute participants can share their views, which helps him confront his own thinking. His company has also worked with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Lastly, Susan Helper, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University, shared what she thinks would make manufacturing more innovative. She particularly is interested in workforce training and believes that technological development should involve workers, not just technology designers. She also shared that companies should invest in problem solving training for all workers, in addition to supporting apprenticeships.
Overall, manufacturing is an important sector to the American economy. Accelerating innovation in industrial processes that use energy—and in products used by the energy industry—would strengthen U.S. manufacturing and thus boost the U.S. economy and global competitiveness.
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