Manufacturing Innovation Hubs to Take U.S. Into Next-Gen Technology Leadership

By Al Bredenberg
02/10/2014
Credit: Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A series of manufacturing research hubs that the Obama administration wants to establish underlines the president’s determination to help the resurgence of U.S. manufacturing. Officially known as manufacturing innovation institutes, they are designed to speed the development of advanced, cutting-edge manufacturing and automation technologies and production techniques.

The university-private sector consortiums driving these hubs are being funded in part with federal aid to develop “factories of the future” based on “advanced design and manufacturing tools that are digitally integrated and networked with supply chains,” according to a briefing from the White House.

In 2013’s State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a series of three new manufacturing institutes, with a combined commitment of $200 million from the federal defense, energy, and commerce agencies as well as NASA and the National Science Foundation. The first of those three programs was announced on Jan. 15, called the Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute and situated at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh. To be announced soon are the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute and the Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Institute.

The three Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs), along with a previously established pilot institute focused on additive manufacturing, are part of an initiative called the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). The president and his administration advisors envision the NNMI as a connected series of regional research hubs, through which industry and academia will work together on coming up with advanced solutions. In this year’s State of the Union, the president promised to continue the momentum by launching hubs in 2014.

The recently announced NCSU institute will focus on the development of wide bandgap semiconductors. According to an announcement from the university, this technology “holds the potential to increase system efficiency, reduce the size and weight of devices, improve reliability and durability, and reduce life-cycle cost” of electronics hardware.

Beyond the development of that particular technology, though, NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson said that the new institute “will greatly advance our efforts to quickly bring new technologies to the marketplace and people who need them.” This statement points to the broader objective behind the establishment of these manufacturing innovation hubs: to develop advanced methodologies and systems for manufacturing in order to augment and multiply the United States’ traditional competitive advantage in high-tech.

The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation (DMDI) Institute, which Obama said will be announced soon, was conceived with that high-level objective in mind. Background materials from the federal government note that the DMDI hub will focus particularly on the integration of information technology with manufacturing.

One of the key challenges emerging in manufacturing in the U.S. is the need for collaboration, not just within large companies, but with supply-chain partners and customers and even with competitors. In such an environment, the institute backgrounder stresses that “the key to success is networked, data-driven processes that combine innovative automation, sensing, and control with a transformed manufacturing workforce at every level.” It is a vision that “requires pre-competitive collaboration on many fronts.”

The DMDI hub will provide and support “cross-disciplinary teams to integrate IT and manufacturing solutions, and multi-industry collaboration to promote interoperability in supply chains” and will serve as a “proving ground to link promising information technologies, tools, standards, models, sensors, controls, practices, and skills, and then transition these capabilities to the industrial base for full-scale application.”

The Department of Defense, which will oversee the DMDI, asserts that the results of the DMDI approach “will be applicable to nearly every manufacturing industry sector and are expected to decrease costs by roughly 10 percent across the manufacturing enterprise.”

The wide bandgap semiconductor technology targeted by the NCSU-based institute, itself, provides a case in point of the need for the DMDI process. According to the institute’s interim director, Dennis Kekas, the Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute involves “something like twenty-four partners -- industrial partners, five universities, a national laboratory, and the naval research labs.”

In an interview with Tech Trends Journal, Kekas, a former IBM executive, said such a large consortium is necessary for a technology such as wide bandgap semiconductors, which have limited commercialization now because of their high costs compared to silicon. Wide bandgap materials, such as gallium nitride, aluminum nitride and boron nitride, are able to operate at higher temperatures and switch larger voltages, and thus have great potential.

“Silicon is so pervasive and economical,” Kekas said, “but the problem is, it doesn’t have all the functional capabilities you need in the new world of renewables and microgrids. Part of the purpose of this institute is to stimulate commercialization by working with commercial companies and helping them get started.”

“The goal,” said Kekas, “is to be able to mass-produce these materials and get them into high-tech manufacturing operations, where the U.S. does better than its labor-intensive competitors.”

Developing the wide bandgap technologies and their commercialization is so fundamental and complex that it’s more than any single company can take on. Therefore the need for a cross-disciplinary institute was called upon. “You need an end-to-end supply-chain approach,” said Kekas, “and that’s not the traditional way these manufacturing things work.”

Besides other universities and national labs, the NCSU institute includes a consortium of private-sector firms, including ABB, Cree, Delta Products, Hesse Mechantronics, John Deere, RF Micro Devices, and Toshiba International. Each of these companies has a stake in the wide bandgap market, but each also has its intellectual property and other proprietary interests to protect.

“The institute is kind of the headquarters that orchestrates all of this,” said Kekas, based on “strong relationships and trust, working with all of these various partners. You have to make sure everybody can protect their critical assets, but also share enough to get the bigger job done.”

To some degree, the NCSU institute is a proving ground for the federally funded research hubs that will follow. “As more of these institutes come online,” said Kekas, “they will have to face the same challenges. This is one of the key prototypes, and there’s an enormous spotlight on it.”

 

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