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Make It and Move It

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steel girder rails

Cross-posted on the NIST MEP blog

Without manufacturing, transportation would mean walking barefoot. Without transportation (and manufacturing), there would be no global economy. Fortunately for us, there are trains, trucks, planes, bikes and cars (and shoes!), all of which need to be made. So do bridges, roads, terminals, safety signs and tracks. All these seemingly disparate things work in concert to create the economic systems that keep America buying and selling and building and moving.

And, fortunately for our country, most, if not all, of the transportation infrastructure and supporting transportation equipment can and perhaps should be manufactured here. Transportation is not an end in itself. It’s a means to achieving American manufacturing and economic prosperity — a very big and very important means.

I know that American manufacturers can make anything and everything. The problem is matching manufacturing capability with long-term, predictable business opportunities that make sense.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) teamed up to address some of the issues that have hampered the matching of opportunity with ability. The partnership was set up to find domestic manufacturing capacity for steel girder rails. Yes, steel girder rails. There are 60 cities in the United States that are planning, designing or constructing systems for street cars.  Yes, street cars. (If your mind just wandered off to the scene in Meet Me in St. Louis when Judy Garland sang, “the Trolley Song,” you’ve got the picture.)

Girder rail is the type of rail that street cars and light rail run on. Girder rail is not currently made in the U.S.  We’re talking, by the way, about hundreds of millions of dollars of potential business in that sector alone.

DOT and MEP learned that several U.S. manufacturers possess technical capabilities and production capacities that could be applied toward the production of girder rail. The analysis conducted by the nationwide MEP system indicated that these same companies are also interested in learning more about the opportunity to produce girder rail for the domestic market. Led by DOT Deputy Secretary John D. Porcari, MEP and DOT sat down with seven domestic manufacturers to discuss girder rail solicitations that leverage federal DOT funding around the country and outline the financial and production issues related to U.S. girder production. Watch Deputy Secretary Porcari speak about this collaboration at the Manufacturing Innovations 2011 event.

At the meeting, the MEP system provided market intelligence about U.S. manufacturing suppliers and their capabilities.  DOT provided a framework for consistent and predictable girder rail procurements that allows for companies to make investment decisions.  As expected, it isn’t as easy as matching up a company to the opportunity.  It’s been years since girder rails have been made in the USA, and with that comes obstacles to overcome.  That is why the relationship between MEP and DOT is so valuable.  Together, MEP, DOT and U.S. manufacturers are beginning to understand the challenges and opportunities ahead.

That transportation-related manufacturing is an engine (no pun intended) for spurring economic development in the U.S. is not lost on DOT. DOT is striving for 100 percent American-made transportation infrastructure — the rails, the seats, the glass, all of it — in its funded projects. By upholding Buy America provisions, they want to create a virtuous and unending cycle in the U.S. manufacturing sector. And MEP is there to help domestic suppliers realize the opportunities for making the parts right here in the USA.

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