Thursday, January 17th, 2013

A Proposal to Designate 20 U.S. Manufacturing Universities

People usually refer to the Brookings Institution as a think tank; Brookings describes itself as an organization devoted to independent research and innovative policy solutions. On Monday of this week it posted on its website a policy proposal for American manufacturing, of which our plastics industry is the third largest sector.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings propose that the federal government support the designation of a core of approximately 20 leading “Manufacturing Universities.” The schools would have to revamp their engineering programs around manufacturing engineering, emphasizing work that is relevant to industry.

The universities would perform more joint industry-university research projects. There would be more student training incorporating manufacturing experience through cooperative programs, and a Ph.D. program that turned out doctors of engineering who would work in industry. Their doctoral training would be like high-level apprenticeships, and they could not receive a Ph.D. without having worked in industry.

Criteria for faculty tenure would consider professors’ work with or in industry as much as their scholarly publications. The universities’ business schools would focus on manufacturing issues such as production, and would integrate with the engineering program. The proposal’s authors, Robert D. Atkinson and Stephen Ezell, specify an annual award for each school of at least $25 million from the National Science Foundation, and prioritization of their applications for NSF grants.

Prior to actually making the proposal, the authors give reasons for it such as: the need to strengthen the U.S. in the increasingly innovation-driven global economy; the ever-wider array of nations looking to win the race for innovation advantage; and that the U.S., as a high-cost nation, can only regain manufacturing competitiveness through innovation and productivity

This proposal is one of several ideas about manufacturing and innovation that Brookings has on its website. One is a proposal to create a National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NMMI) led by the private sector, which would complement the designated universities.

The proposal’s authors note that designating the universities would not be unprecedented. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which established land-grant colleges to promote learning in “agriculture and the mechanic arts,” and these colleges were key role in enabling the USA to take the lead in the mechanization of agriculture and the industrialization of the economy.

Following the Great Recession, many Americans have come to realize the importance of having an economy strong in production and innovation, as well as in global trade. Well-trained manufacturing engineers

would be an obvious asset to the USA as it moves to regain the leading position it held during the twentieth century.

The full proposal for the manufacturing

universities, which is only about 800 words, is posted on the Brookings website among a number of other interesting ideas about manufacturing, and Brookings also offers ideas and proposals on other policy ideas.

Is designating 20 “Manufacturing Universities” the key to restoring America’s manufacturing leadership? No, it’s not. There is no one single thing, be it policy or something else, that will be a magic potion. Providing Ph.D.-level leadership is important, but is it more important than an adequate number of shop-floor technicians, or supportive tax and regulatory policies? And what about overcoming the mistaken but widely held belief that production environments are dark and dirty places to work?

All those and more must be addressed to restore American manufacturing, including the plastics-based kind, to its former glory. The good news: No one is better at getting things done than a manufacturing pro.

What do you think about Manufacturing Universities, or restoring manufacturing restoration in general? Click on “share your thoughts” below to let us know. Bringing U.S. manufacturing back to its rightful place needs a team effort — like every manufacturing project.

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One Response to “A Proposal to Designate 20 U.S. Manufacturing Universities”

  1. quite interesting, heard it before but still interesting.