Back in October 2010, the 2011 National Academy of Engineering meeting hosted a forum on manufacturing. The summary of that forum — Making Things: 21st Century Manufacturing and Design — is now available.
A couple of points from the forum jumped out at me. First, Rodney Brooks of Heartland Robotics stressed the changing nature of the high-tech production of “low-tech” goods. Part of the competitive edge of these products is not necessarily their technological sophistication but their responsiveness to customer demand. That responsiveness is driven by the ability to do short-run production at a nearby facility. As Brooks is quoted saying:
“If you [manufacture low technology products] close to where they are sold, they become fast moving, and you get a lot more innovation happening here in the United States.
The second point was that manufacturing is an integrated system. As the report notes:
Manufacturing is a lot more than what goes on in factories. It includes designing, engineering, sourcing, producing, distributing, marketing, and selling products.
This point was made by Lawrence Burns, former vice president for research and development (R&D) and strategic planning at General Motors, who is quoted saying “We must teach the next generation about manufacturing in this broad context.”
The third point is one I have raised before: the link between design and manufacturing and the importance of design thinking. But design thinking is not about making object look nice — it is about creative solutions. This point was stressed by David Kelley of IDEO and the Stanford design school. Creativity requires what Kelley calls “radical collaboration. As the report states:
“I’m a mechanical engineering professor,” said Kelley. “Five mechanical engineers as a team do not come up with the same ideas as a team with a business person, an anthropologist, a social scientist, an educator, and a mechanical engineer. . . . Putting that diversity to work is a great thing.”
A next point built upon the earlier point of low-tech products and addressed what I call the high-value fixation. The report summarizes:
To keep value in the United States, the know-how responsible for creating that value needs to exist here. This know-how is not always in high technologies. As Ursula Burns, chairman and CEO, Xerox Corporation, observed, Xerox wants to build things in the United States but is having trouble in the Northeast finding manufacturing engineers. The United States has “lost the low end–the building of the physical gear boxes and things like that.” Once those capabilities are lost to other countries, they can be very hard to get back.
I wish I could say that the forum broke new ground on ideas as to how to confront the policy challenges. They did not – falling back on more R&D (especially for DARPA like activities) and fixing education. But they did raise important points about the future of manufacturing — points we which we need to take to heart and follow up on in crafting our manufacturing strategy.