Retool in 2016: Time to Take Advantage of our Advanced Manufacturing Strength in Michigan

By Posted on January 13, 2016
Blog

Dan Radomski
Vice President, Industry & Venture Development
NextEnergy

In this month’s newsletter, you will notice a Clean Energy Manufacturing Retooling grant opportunity with the Michigan Agency for Energy (MAE). Supporting advanced manufacturing technology, R&D and operational investments is nothing new in Michigan. Our State agencies including MAE and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation understand and appreciate “manufacturing innovation” as a true bench strength that is unique to our region in its depth, value creation and economic impact. So when we hear the rest of our nation catch up to this fact, it is difficult not to utter, ”what took you so long?” Last year brought about significant announcements of new advanced manufacturing institutes designed to help domestic entities collaborate on next generation manufacturing methods and intellectual property (IP). Large multi-year financial commitments have been made by the US Advanced Manufacturing Office in seven manufacturing institutes, representing a total investment exceeding $600 million. These National Network of Manufacturing Institutes (NNMI’s) focus on a wide variety of critical competencies including additive manufacturing, digital manufacturing, flexible electronics, photonics, power electronics, and more. The investments include two manufacturing institutes with major operations centered in Michigan, Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT) and the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Institute. LIFT is located in Detroit, and focused on creation of light weight metal manufacturing techniques that will enable the design and develop the next generation of automobiles and other transportation products that will be more fuel efficient, provide product differentiation and support climate change concerns. What’s more, the technology will be developed by US entities. A combination of largest established firms, small businesses and academic researchers will develop these technologies; own the IP; profit from the sale of their differentiated products, components and materials; grow their businesses and create jobs domestically.

So, in Michigan, we applaud the Advanced Manufacturing Office! We understand that the most compelling technology in the products we use is often hidden in advanced manufacturing innovations. From the introduction of new engineered materials, casting/forging processes and additive manufacturing techniques…to unique custom equipment, novel inspection systems and intelligent automation methods…this is where the true IP resides in many products. Make no mistake, advanced manufacturing methods are often the “black science”…the IP that is most unique, hardest to replicate by others, what differentiates a company from their competitors. It drives cost out of products, creates better performing products, improves lifecycle of products, and allows for more sustainable products. How you design your product for manufacturability, for assembly, for serviceability, for durability, for reduced energy consumption, for recyclability…this is what advanced manufacturing really means. And in Michigan we have been doing it better than anyone else for many years.

NextEnergy supports over 100 early stage and small business cleantech ventures on an annual basis. You may be surprised to learn that nearly half of those ventures have advanced manufacturing IP at the core root of their innovations. These advanced manufacturing cleantech ventures clearly offer the most compelling technologies in our network…they are unique to our region, many branching off of our Michigan research universities and established businesses with a long standing competency in “making things”. We have recognized some successful milestones with a couple of these ventures in recent months. For example, Detroit Materials, a spin-off of Wayne State University, with a unique high strength lighter weight steel material manufacturing process was awarded a Phase I SBIR grant from the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), the project is to prototype a series of M1 Abrams battle tank road arms using DM steel, and compare cost and performance to current forged 4000 series parts. They recently sold their first set of products to a defense engineering company for a military application. Another company, Nuevokas Corp located in the upper peninsula of Michigan has developed a high speed processing technology to manufacture basalt fiber reinforced polymer (FRP) rebar. Established players didn’t believe they could reach the speed of production, the quality of product, the low cost…they proved everyone wrong. They have attracted significant funding from private investors as well as state funding support and are now shipping product to customers, poised for tremendous growth. These are ventures that required a patch work of funding, a creative approach to market…their pathway to commercialization as not easy, but it makes me proud that we could play a role in helping them get there despite the odds. These are not just the best and brightest advanced manufacturing ventures, or the most intriguing Michigan early stage companies – these are among the most compelling innovators our nation has to offer. We should marvel at their creation, we should applaud their progress despite a low risk and unsupportive capital market, and we should celebrate their commercial success as a domestic victory of American ingenuity.

I’m not exactly sure how “Manufacturing” pulled itself out of the “dead end career” purgatory just a few years ago to what in now touted as the hottest future career path on the national level. But we never forgot and we never will. Thanks Michigan for your support of advanced manufacturing, in particular your support for clean energy manufacturing. We also welcome AMO and others, glad to have you join us in our nation’s most compelling and impactful innovation lab: the manufacturing shop floor!

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