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In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted a remarkable trend of recent years: the turnaround in many corners of America’s manufacturing sector. Nearly 900,000 new jobs have been created by U.S. manufacturers in the last six years. To accelerate this trend President Obama has promoted the launch of a network of “next-generation” manufacturing hubs— including the new NextFlex Institute in Mountain View, and six others established over the last year.
But the long-term growth outlook is unclear. The number of jobs in the manufacturing sector is still 1.4 million below the level when the recession began in December 2007; and in late 2015 the nation’s leading manufacturing index contracted at its fastest pace since June 2009, following a months-long slide.
Clearly, there is more work to do to shore up U.S. manufacturing, and the innovation hubs mentioned by President Obama are part of the solution.
As proposed by the President in 2012 and authorized by Congress in 2014, the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) is bringing together private companies, government agencies, universities, community colleges, and other state and local organizations with a goal of bridging the gap between basic research and product development. They aim to accelerate innovation by pooling resources and investment in emerging manufacturing technologies with broad applications. The institutes also give companies access to cutting-edge equipment and opportunities for workforce training.
The NextFlex Institute in San Jose, CA announced last August, is the seventh incubator in the network, and the first on the West Coast. Last year, a consortium of 96 companies, 11 laboratories and non-profits, 43 universities, and 15 state and regional organizations, including the City of San Jose, secured an award of $75 million from the Pentagon and $108 million in private funding to launch the “flexible hybrid electronics” initiative.
Unlike traditional circuit boards mounted on rigid green plastic, flexible circuits embedded in fabric or film could pave the way to many exciting innovations: medical implants that conform to bones and organs; lighter communications gear built into military uniforms; or solar cells on a roll of plastic.
IPC has joined NextFlex as a partner and will apply its strength and expertise in standards development to assist the institute in creating roadmaps for industry standards for flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing. Our collaborative efforts will provide the printed electronics community with the standards and education needed to advance this technology, shorten product lead times, and improve product performance.
Other NNMI institutes are focusing on hot areas such as 3D printing, lightweight materials, and advanced semiconductors.
But here again, the good news is tempered by a dose of reality. Congress, the Executive Branch, and all of the institute’s partners must keep up their long-term commitment to adequate funding and coordination.
Congressional appropriators—including Silicon Valley’s Rep. Mike Honda— provided $25 million in 2016 funding for new institutes and $5 million for coordination by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). This funding level is small in comparison to the scope of the challenge and the demonstrated appetite from the private sector. But the return on investment on even that amount should be huge. Congress will have another opportunity to provide more innovation seed money in the 2017 budget.
In an era of partisan rancor, the bipartisan support for the NNMI reveals a strong consensus in favor of accelerating the nation’s manufacturing sector and reinvesting in America’s technology leadership. Now more than ever, U.S. policymakers need to nurture the green shoots of the manufacturing revival.
Dr. John Mitchell is president of IPC – Association Connecting Electronics Industries, representing an estimated 800,000 people employed in 2,200 U.S. member facilities.