Warren Hunt

It’s an exciting time for those of us in the materials and manufacturing world as we watch, and in some cases participate in, the growing body of Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs). The development of the IMIs is being heavily shaped by the community through the Request for Information (RFI) process, which seeks to gather input to identify topics and inform the subsequent Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA).

The IMIs are components of the envisioned National Network of Manufacturing Innovation aimed at accelerating development and adoption of cutting-edge manufacturing technologies. The Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Energy (DOE) are leading the way for the Institutes, which are developed from federal agency-sponsored efforts, awaiting Congressional action. As the IMIs move forward, it makes sense to recap where we are and discuss the potential future directions of this effort indicated by the RFIs.

The pilot Institute, known initially as the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute and now as America Makes, was established in August 2012. In early 2014, three additional Institutes were launched: the Next Generation Power Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute, supported by DOE; and the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute and Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation Institute, both with cost-shared support from the DoD.

This week full proposals are due for the Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Composites Materials and Structures, another DOE-supported Institute.  Prior to this FOA, there were two RFIs in August and December 2013 and a stakeholder workshop in January 2014. This open process provides an opportunity for the community to be aware of the developing area of focus and contribute to the discussion.

Inputs were due at the end of May for a broader RFI issued by the DOE-EERE Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) to solicit ideas for future Institutes. Rather than seeking comment on a pre-selected topic areas, this RFI was more open. For example, it requested ideas for Institutes that would address the Clean Energy Manufacturing goals. It also sought community input on the areas that DOE had identified as important cross-cutting topics, and have formed internal DOE teams led by the AMO. Finally, it requested suggestions on ways in which AMO support could be further leveraged in support of existing Institutes as well as the DOE Critical Materials Institute.

The most recently issued RFI from the DoD through the Air Force Research Lab is seeking to gather input on six technical focus areas for input:

  • Flexible Hybrid Electronics
  • Photonics
  • Engineered Nanomaterials
  • Fiber and Textiles
  • Electronic Packaging and Reliability
  • Aerospace Composites

Again, through a series of comprehensive and specific questions, the objective is to seek input from the community to inform prospective Institutes, and hopefully increase the probability that they will achieve their goals. Inputs are being accepted through July 14.

Stepping back and taking a broader look at not only the activities described above, but also those supported by NIST through the Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMTech) program, it is apparent that there is a lot of effort being applied at the government level to moving manufacturing innovation forward. While half the battle with any government-driven initiative is keeping the acronyms and players straight, I am hopeful that these efforts will spur the engagement — especially from industry — needed to see real progress.