Can the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation revitalize U.S. Manufacturing?

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Innovation may be a hot buzzword right now, but it is also an established tool for making manufacturers more competitive.  With US manufacturing still sluggish overall, the firms that are most competitive are those who find new and upgraded products and processes through innovation. So, if innovation is successful on the small scale, why not apply those principles to an entire industry? This is the basic idea behind the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI)—a system of nationwide, industry/technology specific institutes that will focus on the challenges and future improvements of that industry.

Recently, The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released their report “Why America Needs A National Network for Manufacturing Innovation” detailing the reasons and research behind the need for these institutes, as well as suggestions for their design and function. Between the presentation of their findings, the panel of experts representing manufacturers and existing innovation groups and the questions from the audience at the event, a few themes emerged:

1)     Industry Needs To Be Proactive: NNMI will need industry support to gain the necessary federal funding now, and industry will need to be the driving force behind the work of the NNMI once established.  If the innovations produced are of little importance to the industry served, the institutes will be irrelevant.

2)     Plan Ahead: Potential minefields like intellectual property, the sunset of federal funding, and a lack of independence needed to be responsive to industry can be dealt with early on if all stakeholders can come together. Clear metrics, defined organizational structure and member buy-in can solve many of these problems before they exist.

3)     Look At Both The Vertical And The Horizontal: For the NNMI to reach their full potential, the innovation work must consider the entire supply chain, not just the large companies or end users.  Additionally the innovation should consider the entire product process from design to final product.  This will ensure that the manufacturers that often need innovation the most—small firms— will have their needs addressed and innovations will fit smoothly into the supply chain.

As the report points out, the NNMI, along with other policy changes, would go a long way in supporting the innovation needs of U.S. manufacturers.  Specifically called out in the report’s conclusion,  “NNMI will strengthen the innovation capabilities of U.S. production facilities, which are essential for success in a highly competitive global manufacturing economy…. NNMI alone will not fix all that ails U.S. manufacturing. There is no single silver bullet that will revitalize American manufacturing; many policy improvements are needed to both macroeconomic and innovation policy approaches. But creating NNMI would be a very important step. It would fill a major gap in the current U.S. innovation system for manufacturing. At least as important, it would send a powerful message to the world: the United States is no longer taking manufacturing for granted.”

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