Dan Bobkoff

The face of advanced manufacturing? David Bourne of CMU's Robotics Lab sits in a Humvee being built by a helpful robot.

Back in June, President Obama came to Pittsburgh to tout something called Advanced Manufacturing. He created a group to work on it, made up of government officials, academics, and industry. The point, the president says, is to promote innovation, make the country more competitive. But, we wanted to know:

What is advanced manufacturing anyway?

“Oh goodness,” said Mike Molnar when asked just that. “That’s one of those questions I should probably have a ready answer to.”

Molnar is the Chief Manufacturing Officer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Advanced manufacturing is kind of his focus. But as I found, most people can’t agree on what it is.

It can be about new ways of making things, says Erica Fuchs of Carnegie Mellon University.

“It can be robots; it can be 3D printing,” Fuchs said.

Or, maybe it’s just companies building high tech products for newer industries.

“It could be just that brand new battery company, that brand new sensor company,” Fuchs added.

Some like Ned Hill of Cleveland State have a more flip answer.

“Advanced manufacturing is any manufacturing company that’s survived over the last twenty years,” he said.

Molnar of NIST took a second to come up with his own definition.

“Advanced manufacturing is the ability to make something nobody else can,” he said.

The President offered this definition back in June.

“It means how do we do things better, faster, cheaper to design and manufacture superior products that allow us to compete around the world” Mr. Obama said.

However we define it, advanced manufacturing has become a priority for Mr. Obama. He was speaking in front of a yellow robot at Carnegie Mellon University. The occasion was to announce a new partnership.

“All with one big goal,” he said. “And that is a renaissance of American manufacturing. We’re calling it AMP, A-M-P, the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.”

The point says the administration, is to find and support new technologies that could create jobs and make American manufacturing more competitive. AMP is made up of engineering schools like Carnegie Mellon, plus industry and government officials. They’re having their first meeting this month.

Dan Bobkoff

This robotic arm has both a welding torch and a projector to help human workers know where to place bolts and perform other work.

And, when I visited Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh recently, I could see why the President came here to talk about the future of manufacturing.

“At the end of this robot is a projector!” said David Bourne, as he showed me the frame of a military-grade Humvee. He’s a principal scientist at CMU’s Robotics Institute.

An orange, robotic arm equipped with a welding torch, and, yes, a projector sits idly by. But this robot has no intention to replace humans. Bourne says it has a nobler mission: it’s going to help the human workers do what they do better.

“If we can get robots and people to work together,” he said, “then the economies come back into line because it’s easier to program robots to do what they’re good at, and we can project any kind of information onto the product in the right place so the person can go over and tighten something in exactly the right spot.”

Robots still don’t have opposable thumbs.

This friendly robot gets funding from DARPA, the same part of the Department of Defense that helped create the internet. And, like how the internet has grown to pervade nearly all aspects of our life, Bourne sees big implications for his technology.

“We’re going whole hog across the product spectrum, Bourne said. “I’m doing this kind of research for everything from cell phones, to this DARPA project for military vehicles, I’m working with Boeing for airplane wings. Same technology, different uses.”

And, that’s what this advanced manufacturing partnership is supposed to be about: helping emerging technologies that can help lots of industries and companies. Bourne thinks more manufacturers will switch from mass production to mass customization. That means churning out small batches of highly customized products, instead of thousands upon thousands of a single design.

The idea is that if America can get good at this high end manufacturing, and push into new materials and technologies, we can continue to have high paying jobs, even if it’s not as many as manufacturing’s heyday.

“It’s instead most likely going to be something where there are fewer people on the manufacturing line itself, but we need those people in order to have the jobs that are in innovation and for our country to continue to stay ahead,” said Erica Fuchs of Carnegie Mellon.

Fuchs’s specialty is engineering and public policy. And, she’s found that when we lose manufacturing, we also lose research and development. She says that’s because they go hand in hand. The person designing something often needs to walk next door to the factory to make sure it all comes together.

“The engineer needs to be there to figure out why the oven isn’t working today,” she said.

In June, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said [PDF link] that the US is losing the ability to make things invented here, like LED lights and components for TVs and smartphones. And, something else important: robots.

David Bourne at Carnegie Mellon’s robotics lab noted that the robot he showed me actually came from Switzerland.

“We’ve already done a pretty good job losing the robotics industry,” he said. “We haven’t lost the software part yet. It shows you just how fragile this is. If we fall asleep—this is a crossroads for American manufacturing. If we miss this one, it could be a generation before we have another opportunity like this. This is a big deal.”

And, that’s why those who care about making things are closely watching the President’s Advanced  Manufacturing Partnership, hoping something comes out of it that will make the Midwest and America a manufacturing power again.