By Jamison Cocklin
The Mahoning Valley has an opportunity to become a “geographic and intellectual center” that can help spur job growth and technological innovation across the country, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Avon, said Friday.
Brown, who made the remarks Friday on his first tour of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute on West Boardman Street, recognized the national attention the manufacturing hub has received since President Barack Obama referenced it, and Youngstown, during his State of the Union address last month.
First established in August, with $30 million from the 2012 budget authority of federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Defense, and another $40 million from the institute’s research and development consortium, Youngstown’s NAMII is now under pressure to prove its concept and help launch as many as 18 more facilities across the country.
“Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio,” Obama said during his speech. “A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything. There’s no reason this can’t happen in other towns.”
During his address, the president renewed a call he made in March 2012 asking Congress to authorize $1 billion for a National Network of Manufacturing Innovation.
Since the president’s comments, NAMII has received some negative attention because work there has been slow to develop as the institute continues renovating the building, finalizing project details, and securing the equipment and workforce required to launch.
The goal will be to focus on circumventing technological barriers to the widespread commercial application of additive manufacturing. The process uses three-dimensional software to design a product and send a detailed blueprint to a specialized machine that then prints it layer by layer, fashioning a real-life product made of plastics, metals or resins.
“This is a cultural issue. If nobody is being critical, chances are you’re not doing anything,” said Ed Morris, NAMII’s new director. “We’ve been focusing on the framework and getting things in place. There are crucial priorities to identify, and we need to get the money flowing to the right places.”
Morris acknowledged that establishing NAMII as a benefit for the community and the country is a challenge.
Significant hurdles remain in commercializing additive manufacturing, such as the speed at which products can be made, constraints on the size of what can be built and the materials from which products can be made.
On Jan. 31, NAMII accepted final project proposals from its membership, which consists of more than 65 private and public entities. Those proposals, depending on what is selected by a review team, will determine the course of NAMII’s near-term work.
Morris said a clearer picture will emerge on the consortium’s work in the coming weeks when projects are finalized. Currently, a full-time workforce at the West Boardman Street facility is being hired, with four of five available positions basically secured, he said.
NAMII also will focus on education and work force development through its university partnerships. A space on the second floor of the hub will be dedicated to bringing in grade-school children who will have a chance to work on unique projects geared toward peaking interest in advanced manufacturing at a young age.
“When we do innovation in this country, we also have to do manufacturing here, too,” Brown said.
“It’s the engineers on the shop floor and the workers on the shop floor that need their training here. Education provides innovation, and the next generation of technology that keeps jobs here, to me that’s the most important part of this.”
Morris has been busy building support for the NAMII initiative, flying across the country speaking with industry insiders and stakeholders.
Brown already has circulated draft legislation to support the president’s goal and establish more hubs across the country. Brown said he hopes another advanced manufacturing institute might land in Ohio.