England, in the 1760s, was the birthplace of the western world’s Industrial Revolution, initiated by a group of men who made “manufacturing” the purview of the inventive. Called The Lunar Society of Birmingham because they met during the full moon, these inventors were amateur scientists and innovators. They discovered oxygen, revolutionized ceramic production, built canals, named minerals, and generally combined the disciplines of art, science and commerce to identify or create things not previously even imagined.
Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, scientists and inventors still shape manufacturing. A recent workshop hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology on dexterous manipulation described how NIST scientists are developing a technology roadmap to guide measurement in robotics. In NIST’s nano-lab, they are measuring and setting standards for the dimensions and functions of engineered nanoparticles for manufacturing. And in the “green manufacturing” lab, NIST is advancing sustainable, i.e. “green” manufacturing processes through a framework for modeling and optimization.
NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership, takes these scientific “tools” – as well as other more prosaic tools – and puts them into the hands of American manufacturers so they can continue to innovate and grow. It’s certainly no secret that American manufacturing has been at the forefront of the world’s changing economy. But it is something of a secret – or at least an unacknowledged fact – that American manufacturing has re-invented itself during that time. For manufacturing, the last several decades have reflected all good stories in which the protagonist moves from hero to regular guy to invisible man. Coming out of WWII, American manufacturing was the hero, saving the world from fascism. Then it became the regular guy, providing good jobs and wages for countless Americans from all walks of life, and finally the invisible man as it shed jobs and searched for other ways to remain relevant and profitable.
But manufacturing in the 20th century wasn’t invisible; rather it was an industrial sector in transition, transforming itself from commoditized producer to inventive supplier of things never even imagined by most of us. But manufacturing remains a secret to most people, who don’t think about how their dreams are made real or that almost everything they touch is “manufactured”. Manufacturing’s not simply about production, but about designing, engineering, computing, automating, machining and welding. It’s about distributed supply and demand, with people and parts being sourced from around the world. It’s about quality, invention and collaboration. It’s about ideas.
To understand what it will take to make American manufacturing a hero once again, check out “ReMaking America” by the Alliance for American Manufacturing. “ReMaking America” is the second volume on manufacturing policy edited by Richard McCormack and unveils a new story for American manufacturing: one of hope. With the right policies, the authors argue, manufacturing may see a new dawn in America along with the wealth and growth opportunities needed to keep the American Dream alive.
 Uglow, Jenny. The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Farrar, Straus and Girous. 2002.
 J. Falco, J. Marvel and E. Messina, Dexterous Manipulation for Manufacturing Applications Workshop (NISTIR 7940), June 2013. Downloadable from: www.nist.gov/manuscript-publication-search.cfm?pub_id=913795