From Nature magazine

The administration of US President Barack Obama announced this week that it is committing US$200 million to create three advanced-manufacturing innovation institutes, focusing on digital manufacturing, lightweight composites and next-generation power sources.

The new institutes are another step in Obama’s plan to reboot America’s manufacturing sector with a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget requested a one-time $1-billion investment to fund the network, which would consist of 15 more institutes around the country.

The institutes will mesh industry, universities and community colleges with federal agencies to design and implement innovations in manufacturing. Funding will come from the defence, energy and commerce departments, as well as NASA and the National Science Foundation. Industry partners and local governments will provide matching funds.

A pilot programme for the initiative launched last year in Youngstown, Ohio, focusing on additive manufacturing, often referred to as 3D printing. “This is a great next step,” says David Dornfeld, a mechanical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley. “A lot of enthusiasm has already been generated for these institutes.”

The digital manufacturing institute will develop software to help push manufacturing from design and prototyping to production and testing stages. The institute for lightweight metals manufacturing will attempt to spur reductions in manufacturing and energy costs for products such as medical devices and vehicles. The next-generation power-sources institute will employ semiconductor technology to develop compact, high-efficiency power sources. “The bandgap semiconductor institute is fairly specific to the Department of Energy, but the other two are right on target for where we advised the president to go,” says Dornfeld, referring to a report submitted to the president last year by the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership steering committee and endorsed by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Whereas industry observers are mostly positive about the manufacturing initiative as a whole, some are concerned that the initiative may not be robust enough. Philip Shapira, a public-policy analyst at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, says that it would begin to support the US manufacturing landscape in a way comparable to systems in Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan and Taiwan. “However, 15 centres is probably the absolute minimum,” Shapira adds. Germany, by comparison, has 60 Fraunhofer institutes focusing on innovation in technology and manufacturing.

Also, experts agree that even if Obama receives $1 billion from Congress, the institutes will not become self-sustaining without additional long-term public financing.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on May 13, 2013.