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Clearing a Path to Innovation

Mark Shortt
Editorial Director
Design-2-Part Magazine

One of the best ways to clear the obstacles that stand in the way of innovation is to support the growth of innovation ecosystems, such as those that are currently being developed by the 14 Manufacturing USA Innovation Institutes that have sprung up around the country in the last five years. Funded by public and private investment, the Manufacturing USA Institutes are dedicated to the advancement of technologies ranging from 3D printing to power electronics, advanced robotics, advanced lightweight and composite materials, flexible hybrid electronics, and smart manufacturing, among others.

Through their collaborative efforts, the Manufacturing USA Institutes are helping to spur the growth of innovation hubs, or ecosystems, in their regions of activity. These regions include Youngstown, Ohio, the headquarters of America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute; Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation; and Los Angeles, where the Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute is based.

Synergies created by this network of forward-thinking, collaborative participants from industry, academia, and government help institute members overcome technical hurdles, share state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, and train the manufacturing workforce of  tomorrow. "We compete for each other, not against each other," is their motto.

Manufacturing USA Institute members include organizations like MassRobotics, a Boston-based non-profit whose mission is to help create and develop the next generation of robotics and connected device companies by providing startups with the workspace and resources needed to develop, prototype, test, and, ultimately, commercialize their products.

"We have equipment that can be shared–everything from scopes and soldering stations to 3D printing–and we also have robotics platforms that companies can utilize, whether they're telepresence systems, collaborative robots, or industrial arms," Tom Ryden, executive director of MassRobotics, told Design-2-Part Magazine in a phone interview. "We also work closely with some of the suppliers, like Panasonic, Harmonic Drive, and Arrow Electronics. They often host discussions, and that brings the community out and together. We think it's important for there to be a number of these types of events, where we can get the folks from all of the different startups together to discuss what's working, and what's not. What challenges do they have, and how can we better help them to grow in the community?"

"If you look at it, the robotics industry, in many ways, is where computers were, several decades ago," said Daniel Theobald, a co-founder of MassRobotics and the chief innovation officer at the mobile robotics company Vecna Technologies. "It used to be that when you needed a payroll system for your Fortune 500 company, you'd go out and hire IBM, and IBM would come in and physically build a computer for you and then send an army of programmers with punch cards out to physically program that computer. And it wasn't until you broke through that monopoly, in a sense, where, suddenly, other companies could write software for an IBM computer, that the industry really took off. And we're still sort of at a stage right now in robotics, more similar to the previous, where these are sort of all point solutions–they don't integrate together very well yet. So that was a big part of why we started MassRobotics."

Vecna Technologies prides itself on having its products made locally, primarily in Massachusetts. Theobald said there's a long list of benefits that come from keeping its manufacturing close by, including some that support innovation.

"We had some products that were being manufactured in the Far East, and we decided to onshore those. Some of the benefits are just around the flexibility and the time to make a change in the product and get that product in hand," he said. "The ability to deal with smaller batches and quantities that meet more specific customer needs is a huge benefit. But a lot of it is that when technology is changing quickly, the manufacturing process actually becomes a critical component of the innovation cycle. If you're trying to design a product and then ship it off to the Far East to be manufactured, not only does that create difficulties for the manufacturing, but you're also losing a tremendous amount of learning and knowledge around what the next iterations of the product might be.

"So we've just found that having it here in the U.S.–in Massachusetts, in our particular case–has really helped us to shorten those product development cycles, to be more responsive to our customers, to deal with manufacturing issues in a matter of minutes and hours versus weeks and months. Having the manufacturing team be able to talk to the product development team and say 'Hey, we could reduce the cost on this robot by $15 each if we could move this screw over here, or use the same kind of screw.' That type of communication can really happen effectively when it's all one team. The manufacturing team often times is a prime source of innovative ideas on how to improve the product and make it better.”

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