OXON HILL Md. – Reviving U.S. manufacturing has emerged as such a hot election-year issue that an entire afternoon of an energy technology conference was devoted to the barriers to domestic manufacturing and obstacles to retraining the U.S. manufacturing workforce.
Those new workers will require design skills that are integral to modern manufacturing along with “soft skills” like critical thinking, leadership and collaborative abilities, experts agreed during an Energy Department conference this week across the Potomac River from Washington.
Corporate executives, educators, current and former bureaucrats and an ex-congressman all weighed in on the erosion of the American manufacturing base and how to return it to global competitiveness. Most argued that labor costs and energy usage aren’t the key barriers; what is needed is a revival of flexible, design-driven manufacturing and a new, modular approach to training the next generation of machinists, engineers and technical managers.
Throughout the preceding two centuries, the U.S. led the world in deploying disruptive technologies ranging from railroads and the telegraph to an electrical grid and communications networks. No more, argued market researcher Stefan Heck of McKinsey & Co. “Where we are lacking is the guts to deploy new technologies.”
Heck’s use of the word “guts” refers not only to the infrastructure needed to roll out new technologies by the willingness to take risks in order to reap the benefits of new energy and other innovations. He argued that much of the semiconductor industry has left the U.S. not because of labor costs - which account for only about 2 percent of the chip production costs - but because most U.S. chip makers “haven’t been willing to make the investment” in the capital equipment needed to operate advanced chips plants.
Heck, who worked closely with global chip companies before shifting his focus to cleantech, was among a range of experts addressing manufacturing and workforce issues during an Energy Department summit sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy. Leo Christodoulou, program manager for DoE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, noted that manufacturing currently accounts for 11 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, employs about 12 U.S. million workers and about 60 percent of U.S. scientists and engineers work in manufacturing-related fields.
Factory floor skills must be augmented by design expertise.
The Energy Department office is looking for ways to promote manufacturing clusters that leverage the local and regional characteristics of U.S. manufacturing (durable goods in the Midwest, high-tech in the Southwest). Further, Christodoulou’s office is attempting to identify the “keystone, foundational technologies” that the U.S. can exploit to revive manufacturing. Two, he noted, are a superior communications infrastructure and first-rate universities.
Identifying and developing new materials and manufacturing methods are among the next steps in forming regional and state clusters focused on value-added manufacturing, he added. Together, these advances could help transform American manufacturing into an agile, design-driven sector capable of thriving in a global technology competition that places a premium on being the first to deliver innovative products.
With labor-intensive manufacturing unlikely to return to the U.S., McKinsey’s Heck argued: “What we have to shift to is the kind of manufacturing that involves technology, involves automation, involves engineering skill sets, involves more complicated kinds of tasks…things that actually require design, require looking at 3-D CAD drawings, require particular skills to make sure the quality is high.” He offered as examples jet and rocket engines, products that are not only strategically important but require precise tolerances, very exact machining and control of temperature cycles during design and manufacturing.