Nexight Group

Nexight Group uses our expertise to provide public and private sector organizations with guidance on a variety of complex topics. Today is national Manufacturing Day, which focuses on bringing individual manufacturers together to collectively address common manufacturing concerns and challenges. We asked some of our subject matter experts in materials and manufacturing (Ross Brindle, CEO; Greg Hildeman, Technical Program Manager; and Changwon Suh, Technical Program Manager) to define the current state of the materials and manufacturing industry and to provide advice to the incoming administration on how to further materials and manufacturing innovation. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: What investments in manufacturing and materials has the current Administration made?

CS: The Administration has worked to construct various interdisciplinary technology frameworks through joint/integrative initiatives, including the Materials Genome Initiative (MGI), National Strategic Computing Initiative (NSCI), and Manufacturing USA. These Administrative-level efforts have increased the visibility and pervasiveness of next-generation materials and manufacturing concepts, including the Internet of Things, smart manufacturing, and big data.

RB: To date, the Administration has invested more than $1 billion to establish nine Manufacturing Innovation Institutes—an impressive achievement. These institutes focus on solving challenges in key manufacturing industries by bridging the gap between basic research and product development. This emphasis on manufacturing innovation will also create high-paying jobs and grow the U.S. economy. In his 2013 and 2014 State of the Union addresses, President Obama called for the establishment of 45 institutes over the next 10 years, meaning the vision of Manufacturing USA will be left to the next President to fully realize.

GH: A key role of government is to address our nation’s problems or capture opportunities that are important to our national interest. To address these needs, the government has taken a leadership role in many important areas within materials and manufacturing, including through the SunShot initiative, which has facilitated significant growth of the solar industry, reduced the cost of solar panels, and created thousands of jobs.

Q: What challenges exist for advancing materials and manufacturing?

RB: Public-private partnerships—such as the Energy Materials Network (EMN), a Department of Energy (DOE) activity designed to advance the goals of MGI and the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership 2.0 (AMP 2.0)—can be challenging to manage and need dedicated resources. Better linking industry’s needs with national lab capabilities can improve the competitiveness of the U.S. manufacturing sector while gaining maximum return on the investment American taxpayers have made in the national lab system.

Also, some advanced materials that could further technology are not currently cost effective. Technological advances address many of the Nation’s energy, climate, mobility, health, infrastructure, and security challenges, and often rely on the discovery, development, and deployment of advanced materials. For example, gas turbines used to convert natural gas to electricity are generally more efficient at higher temperatures. However, some materials currently used to build turbines cannot withstand those high temperatures, and materials that could do so are not cost-effective at this time.

CS: The demand for new materials is always high, but the process for developing functional materials can be quite slow. I believe this is mainly rooted in a lack of materials and manufacturing databases and computational tools. These would help researchers better understand the relationship between the structure of advanced materials and their performance properties. It is also critical to develop a seasoned workforce that can combine approaches from different scientific fields, including basic sciences such as physics and chemistry and applied fields such as computer science and system engineering.

Q: What can the incoming administration do to further materials and manufacturing innovation?

RB: The next administration should establish additional mechanisms that focus the world-leading capabilities of our national labs on industrially relevant problems that will drive U.S. manufacturing competitiveness. The administration should also support significant increases in funding for basic and applied research to develop new materials that solve foundational engineering problems.

GH: The federal government should continue to work closely with industry, trade associations, academia, and national laboratories to establish long-term materials and manufacturing goals that create alignment among stakeholders. Goals for materials and manufacturing could include defining pathways for industries to recycle, reuse, or repurpose raw materials, waste products, and end-of life products; developing sustainable alternatives for critical materials (e.g., rare earth metals), including those used in electronics, electrical motor magnets, and structural applications; and reusing a greater portion of manufacturing waste heat.

CS: The new administration should converge and leverage the interdisciplinary experience of various science and engineering disciplines and promote intermediate-level materials and manufacturing research (i.e., Technology Readiness Levels 4–7) to accelerate the translation of basic research into matured technology. Constructing standards in open data can also improve innovation by coordinating efforts between the public and private sector.