Programs & Technology Boost Manufacturing's Return

The industrial sector in the US is experiencing a technological renaissance in manufacturing, and that's helping to bring manufacturing back to the US. Domestic manufacturing is seeing a growth spurt for the first time since the 1990s, adding 640,000 jobs since February 2010, according to the White House. Manufacturers are boosting output, building new facilities, increasing exports, and creating jobs that require new skills and knowledge.

As manufacturing moves from mass production to mass customization, industrial engineering is working to make US plants competitive with low-cost plants in Asia. Domestic manufacturing has recently received a boost on the presidential level. President Obama has forged high-tech manufacturing advancements through a national network of research institutes that push collaboration between industry and universities.

NC State University leads the Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which represents a $140 million investment in power electronics. As part of the organization, NC State is leading the advanced use of 3D-printing processes to produce next-generation electric grid components. The institute combines academic, industry, and government partners to improve the energy efficiency of everything from satellites to electric vehicles and power grids.

These programs, combined with a resurgence of manufacturing technology, are helping to bring manufacturing back to US shores. "There are a lot of things that are bringing manufacturing back to the United States. We're deploying new technologies that allow us to produce products we could not before," Dr. Richard Wysk, a professor in the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department at NC State, told Design News.

Transportation costs are a major factor in the return of manufacturing to the US. With rising labor costs in Asia, cheap labor no longer compensates for shipping costs. "By bringing manufacturing home from China, we can eliminate the need to ship things halfway across the world," said Wysk. "We ship raw materials there, have them make it into a product, and then ship it back. Keeping manufacturing close to consumers only makes sense."

Another argument in favor of domestic manufacturing is the economic benefit of a product's supply base. "Everything we manufacture produces secondary economies," Wysk told us. "For one car, there are 40 or 50 suppliers. You support those suppliers when you support manufacturing here. We knew this a long time ago and now we're relearning it."

Manufacturing used to be viewed as large polluting smokestacks and crumbling buildings. That image has changed to a view of manufacturing as whiz-bang technology and high paying jobs. The new view has affected support for manufacturing. "Support of manufacturing changes with political winds. I've seen it change in my 40 years as a professor of manufacturing," said Wysk. "About a dozen years ago, the Clinton administration made a statement that manufacturing was not something we should spend a lot of time on."

The Obama administration sees manufacturing representing high-skilled high-paying jobs. "The current administration realizes we should pay attention to manufacturing," said Wysk. "By launching programs with universities and industry, Obama has changed the way we look at manufacturing. It's no longer a dirty smokestack. The smoke is coming out, but it's clean."

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