In recent years, the future of American manufacturing has seemed as if it was falling apart at the seams.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the industry’s recovery might hinge on such products as TacTiles, 3-by-3 inch adhesives that connect modular carpet tiles. These sticky little squares are exactly the kind of high-concept, high-tech innovation that must ramp up dramatically if United States manufacturing—and the country’s economy—is truly going to make a comeback.
TacTiles eliminate the need for messy, stinky glue and reduce the impact of carpet installation on the environment. They also move their innovator—Atlanta-based Interface Global, the world’s largest modular carpet tile manufacturer—closer to its audacious goal of making zero impact on the environment by 2020.
Interface’s founder, Ray Anderson, a 1956 industrial engineering graduate of Georgia Tech who died in August 2011, often was called the “greenest CEO in America.” Anderson wore the label proudly and worked with his alma mater throughout his career to build an environmentally friendly and financially successful company. In the 1990s, Anderson became convinced that a “Take-Make-Waste” industrial system simply was not sustainable, especially in a carpet industry that relies heavily on petroleum products.
Today, Interface’s commitment to recycled materials and renewable energy has revolutionized the carpet industry.
“Ray’s vision for Interface was that we could be successful as a business but do it the right way,” said John Wells, IM 84, president and CEO of Interface Americas. “People thought Ray was crazy—even I thought he was nuts. Turns out he was right.”
It’s that kind of out-of-the-box thinking that will be needed to restore American manufacturing to its former glory. Factories added 470,000 jobs in the past two years, according to the U.S. Labor Department, the first period of sustained growth since the 1990s. But despite claims that manufacturing is back on its feet, the country lost more than five million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010. Those devastating losses followed decades of decline: Manufacturing employment, which peaked in 1979 at 19.6 million workers, now stands at 11.8 million, a 40 percent plunge.
But more hopeful numbers tell the story of why manufacturing continues to garner so much attention and elicit so much hand-wringing from policymakers, industry and union leaders and institutions like Georgia Tech. Manufacturing jobs pay on average 21 percent more than jobs in private-sector service industries. Every job on the factory floor creates an average of five more jobs along the supply chain—even more when you consider the employees of the restaurants, gas stations, banks and grocery stores that serve those factory workers and their families. “When Georgia loses a factory that has 100 workers, it loses a lot more than 100 jobs,” said Georgia Tech President G. P. “Bud” Peterson.
Although China now vies with the United States as the world’s top manufacturer, America still produced $1.7 trillion worth of goods in 2010. The lion’s share of American exports are from the manufacturing sector; aerospace, chemicals, machinery and medical equipment are key areas. Manufacturing employs two-thirds of the country’s scientists and engineers, and 90 percent of U.S. patents are awarded to manufacturing companies.
At Georgia Tech, which was founded in 1885 to build an industrial base in the South and always has had a symbiotic relationship with manufacturing, no one is ready to cede the country’s dominance in the industry. Over the past 127 years, Tech and its alumni have driven innovation in areas such as telecommunications, biotechnology, robotics and, of course, carpeting.
Now the Institute is focused squarely on the future and building the manufacturing sector of tomorrow. How will they do it?
Improve Manufacturing’s Image
In June 2011, President Barack Obama named President Peterson to the steering committee of his new Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a coalition of industry, university and federal government leaders tasked with focusing on key emerging technologies—including biotechnology and nanotechnology—as well as helping U.S. manufacturers reduce costs, improve quality and accelerate product development.
The steering committee, which released its recommendations this spring, stressed the need to improve manufacturing’s image. “Twenty-five years ago, people had an impression of manufacturing as dumb, dirty and declining,” Peterson said. “That is certainly not an accurate description today.”
Nevertheless, younger workers are avoiding careers in manufacturing, many because of concerns about job security. Although more than eight in 10 Americans believe that manufacturing is vital to the country’s economic prosperity and that the United States should invest more in the sector, only one-third want their children to go into manufacturing, according to a new report by the Washington, D.C.-based Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting.
Manufacturing’s image problem, combined with the aging baby boomer generation, is leading to a dearth of skilled workers needed to operate and maintain increasingly high-tech equipment. Manufacturers expect machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors and technicians to be hardest hit by retirements in the upcoming years, the Manufacturing Institute reported. At the same time, companies expect the jobs that require the greatest skill to be the hardest to fill.
To boost the workforce, Tech is linking job openings with training programs at technical and community colleges. The Institute also is working to energize high school students about manufacturing. With a grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Tech is offering programs teaching students to use the latest technologies by having them design and build wind-turbine blades, mobile robots and electric car bodies.
Zero In On Cutting-edge Technology
“We are not spending a lot of time on manufacturing traditional products using traditional methods,” Peterson said. “The sweet spot for us is in manufacturing advanced products using advanced methodologies.”
The center of that sweet spot could be the field of regenerative medicine and biomedical devices, said Barbara Boyan, the Price Gilbert Jr. Chair in Tissue Engineering in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tech and Emory University. A Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, Boyan also serves as the College of Engineering’s associate dean for research and innovation and executive director of the Translational Research Institute for Biomedical Engineering and Science. In February, she was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering.
Regenerative medicine—which involves replacing or regrowing human cells, tissues or organs—holds great promise for advanced manufacturing. Boyan is probably best recognized for her work on how bone and cartilage cells respond to steroid hormones and interact with biomaterials found in medical devices. Her research could lead to important therapies, particularly for older women at risk for osteoporosis.
But as Boyan is quick to point out, getting a great idea to market in the regenerative medicine field can be a long-range proposition.
The cell business, for example, is not an assembly line that yields one product at a time using a supply chain approach. Though companies try to identify a cell type that can be grown in large quantities and processed in a batch, and the very nature of cells poses great challenges.
“They have to be stored in very specific ways, and there is a certain amount of loss that happens during the storage process that can’t be avoided,” she said. And then there’s the complication of how people feel about genetic tissue. “Many people want cells from themselves or from the umbilical cord when they were first born.”
These collective challenges make the manufacturing of biomedical products difficult. “We don’t yet have a cadre of people who know how to manufacture in this particular sphere—we are creating them from scratch,” Boyan said.
In 2010, the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program awarded Tech $3 million to educate and train what would be the first generation of PhD students in engineering and science to develop stem cell technologies for diagnostic and therapeutic commercial applications.
“In our field, advanced technologies are really interesting in a scientific sense,” Boyan said. “But transferring the knowledge to usable products is very, very difficult to do. We feel very strongly that these processes need to be developed in an engineering/academic context to have a real business in the next 10 years.”
Partner With Industry
Georgia Tech’s multi-disciplinary Manufacturing Research Center (MaRC) long has been a leader in traditional manufacturing, the realm of industries like automobiles and metal cutting. The center is funded primarily by the industry it supports. A key sponsor is Boeing, which selected Tech in 2008 as a strategic university partner and soon began collaborating on new manufacturing technologies for the next generation of aerospace products, including aircraft that is more energy efficient, safe and comfortable.
On any given day, MaRC’s 120,000-square-foot red brick building on Ferst Drive buzzes with activity. Researchers at the Photovoltaic Manufacturing Lab study ways to reduce the cost of solar-cell manufacturing while those at the Direct Digital Manufacturing Laboratory look for new technologies to process titanium and composites for use in biotechnology and aerospace.
Ben Wang, MaRC’s new executive director and Tech’s chief manufacturing officer, envisions MaRC as the focal point for what he calls the “Big M” community—a national consortium of researchers, students, industry leaders and policymakers who address manufacturing processes, supply chain integration, workforce development, industrial policy and everything in between.
“We want MaRC to be the thought leader in innovation-driven manufacturing,” said Wang, who arrived at Georgia Tech in January after serving as director of the High-Performance Materials Institute at Florida State University.
The Big M community will bridge what Wang calls the “valley of death” of product development: the area between scientific research, which universities are good at, and the marketplace, where companies thrive. MaRC will establish a series of unique collaborative laboratories and scale-up to a level where companies can introduce new products quickly.
The success of Big M manufacturing may hinge upon nanomaterials. They’re so small you have to use a high-powered, electron microscope to see them, but they have exceptional strength and high electrical conductivity. Nanomaterials hold the key to building ultra-lightweight cars, planes and sporting goods. “The lighter a product, the more energy efficient,” Wang said. “We know that energy is going to be the chokepoint for the economy in the future.”
One of Wang’s current research projects employs nanomaterials to create a better, more comfortable socket to hold a prosthetic limb. “In terms of predicting tangible products in the future, we really need to use technology to help people improve the quality of life,” he said. “The whole country is getting older and older.”
Don’t Fear The Robots
At Tech’s Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, director Henrik Christensen also is thinking about America’s aging population, but he’s focusing on older factory workers and how robots—often villified as job eaters—can help them.
Though the United States gave birth to the robotics industry, it lags behind a number of countries in fully embracing its importance.
An element of President Obama’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership is the National Robotics Initiative. Christensen, Georgia Tech’s KUKA chair of robotics, serves as an academic and research leader of the initiative, which is geared toward developing robots that could create jobs for the American workforce.
“Unless the technology makes sense from a societal point of view, which is also making sure we keep jobs, then it is not technology we should be investing in,” Christensen said.
At the Center for Robotics, researchers are looking for ways that robots can help autoworkers combat the atrophy of strength that comes with age. The idea is that human beings do the more complex tasks while robots provide the brawn. Robots also can be used in dangerous jobs that otherwise might lead to injuries, or monotonous ones that usually lead to high employee turnover.
“You have a dumb robot that can do the heavy lifting and the smart [human] worker who can install the wiring,” Christensen said. “The future of American manufacturing is going to be about how we empower the factory worker in their daily life.”
The future of American manufacturing also is about boosting productivity, as dictated by simple math. For manufacturing jobs to make a comeback in the United States, American workers who earn five times as much as those in China or India have to produce five times as much, Christensen said.
“There is no way we can compete with low-salary countries unless we use technology to empower our workers to be [equally] productive,” he said. “There are some jobs that are going to be eliminated. But they are going to be replaced by other jobs that hopefully will give workers a higher degree of job satisfaction.”
The Center for Robotics partners with companies, including automakers BMW, General Motors and Toyota, to increase productivity. The center also is working with Boeing to cut the time it takes to manufacture the 737 aircraft.
“If you order a 737 today, you are going to get it in 2018,” Christensen said. “Let’s assume there’s a revolution in fuel technology [between now and then]. Boeing wouldn’t be able to accommodate their customers.”
Boeing wants to cut the wait time in half, doubling the number of airplanes it can make. To help, the center is automating some time-consuming and tedious inspection tasks, such as ensuring all screws are in place. And that doesn’t steal a job from a human inspector—it makes his job better.
“Before, you had a guy who was doing something really boring,” Christensen explains, “and we gave him an instrument that made it less boring and helped him do it faster.”
Bring Jobs Back
TacTiles have made laying carpet tile so easy that “floating floors” are expanding from corporate boardrooms to do-it-yourself playrooms as Interface opens their FLOR stores in trendy neighborhoods across the country to capture the residential market.
Working with Tech’s Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, the company is now experimenting with installing a radio-frequency identification device, or RFID, on TacTiles. The adhesive squares could be applied in a number of settings, like keeping track of equipment or patients in hospitals, revealing product preferences of retail shoppers or regulating HVAC and computer systems in office buildings.
Interface may prove to be ahead of the curve in another way, too: Its carpet tiles are all manufactured right here in the United States. While many corporations have gone offshore, rising costs of oil and overseas labor have affirmed Interface’s choice to remain stateside.
“A lot of companies and industries sent their manufacturing overseas chasing cheap labor,” Wells said. “I think that is also highly unsustainable.”
The big wager placed by Georgia Tech is that other companies will soon become convinced that a new dawn is rising on American manufacturing. With the resources of the Institute trained on that goal, we wouldn’t bet against it.