Manufacturing group looks to spur innovation

U.S. President Barack Obama tours a semiconductor manufacturing facility at Intel in Hillsboro, Ore., Feb. 18, 2011.

Steve Chiotakis: Today in Atlanta, a group calling itself the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership convenes a meeting at Georgia Tech. The White House ssembled
the group of academic, government and industry officials to strengthen and expand the nation's battered manufacturing sector.

But as Dan Bobkoff of the public media project
Changing Gears reports, the partnership is more than just about jobs.


Dan Bobkoff: It's about innovation itself. The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership formed out of a sobering report from the president's science and technology advisers earlier this year. It found not only does the U.S. no longer make many of the products it invented -- things like laptops and video games -- but new technologies are increasingly being invented abroad.

Erica Fuchs is with Carnegie Mellon University, a member of the partnership.

Erica Fuchs: If we don't keep some manufacturing in the United States, we're not going to be able to make the next generation of products.

That's because engineering and manufacturing go hand-in-hand. Designers often need to be right next to the lines that make their inventions. Now, we're falling behind other nations in research and development spending, with implications for jobs, competitiveness and national security.

One model the partnership encourages can be found in David Bourne's robotics lab at CMU. He's perfecting a robot that will work alongside humans on factory floors, with funding from the Department of Defense. The robots will be used to build Humvees. But Bourne sees lots of uses.

David Bourne: I'm doing this kind of research for everything from cell phones. I'm working with Boeing to do this kind of thing to make airplane wings. Same technology, different uses.

The partnership thinks this is the right role for government: funding early stage technologies that are too expensive and risky for any one company to develop. The report that started all this goes to great pains to stress that it is not government's role to invest in specific industries and companies.

But while the partnership talks about government investment in research and development as the foundation for high-quality jobs, Erica Fuchs of Carnegie Mellon University says there will be far fewer people working the assembly line than during the heyday of American manufacturing.

Fuchs: It's not going to be the same as it was 40 years ago, but we need those people in order to have the jobs that are in innovation.

More Advanced Manufacturing meetings are planned for MIT, Stanford and the University of Michigan in the coming months.

I'm Dan Bobkoff for Marketplace.

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