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Blog Category: Manufacturing

NIST Working to Develop Adaptable Robots That Can Assist—and Even Empower—Human Production Workers

NIST’s new Autonomous Assembly Testbed includes an automated guided vehicle (left), conveyers, mannequins and an underslung robot arm (right).

Guest blog by Albert J. Wavering, the Chief of the Intelligent Systems Division of the Engineering Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Robots have explored Mars, descended into volcanoes, and roamed the ocean depths.  Today, they also perform humdrum chores, such as vacuuming and waxing floors.  And in between the ordinary and the extraordinary, robots are carrying out a growing array of tasks, from painting and spot-welding in factories to delivering food trays in hospitals.

But, when it comes to these automated machines, you haven’t seen anything yet, especially in the manufacturing world, where robots were first put to use 50 years ago in a General Motors factory.  In fact, the first factory robot became something of celebrity, earning an appearance, along with one of its inventors, on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Even today, however, manufacturing robots are akin to electromechanical hulks that blindly perform relatively simple, repetitive jobs and—Tonight Show demo notwithstanding—must be safely separated from human workers by fences and gates.

In laboratories around the world, the race is on to build a new generation of robots that are smarter, more flexible, and far more versatile than the current one.  A successful leap to more adept and adaptable robots could set the stage for a revolution in U.S. manufacturing that reaches from the largest factories to the smallest job shops.

Automation technology has found a place performing repetitive and, often, dirty and dangerous factory tasks. It also has helped U.S. manufacturers to achieve productivity increases that are the envy of the world.

But the best could be yet to come.  The next wave of robots could be the springboard to new U.S. companies and new domestic manufacturing jobs.

Resources for Manufacturers - A Month in Review

All month long, Commerce.gov highlighted programs, resources and efforts made to help American manufacturers grow faster and become more competitive. Why? Because the manufacturing sector has been a main driver of the economic recovery over the past two years, with over 230,000 jobs added since the beginning of 2010. The manufacturing sector currently employs over 11 million Americans, providing good-paying jobs for millions of families and serving as the backbone of communities across the country – a brighter future for American manufacturers will mean a brighter future for the American economy.

If you missed any of our posts, here is a quick digest:

Made in America continues to shine

Scott Paul, Executive Director for the Alliance for American Manufacturing

Guest post by Scott Paul, Executive Director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

A strong and vibrant manufacturing base is essential to our nation's economic stability, a strong middle class, and employment opportunities for young men and women across America. The good news is that manufacturing output and employment have been growing over the past 15 months, and in many ways, the sector has played an outsized role in our economic recovery. But our nation will never realize its full potential to grow the manufacturing sector of our economy without a robust strategy and aggressive set of public policies to complement private sector efforts by business and labor to maintain a globally competitive industry.

The case for a permanent capacity for strategic planning on our manufacturing base, evolving to make use of our workers’ skills and the latest technology as well as responding to global trends, could not be stronger when one considers that no matter how innovative or competitive individual manufacturers may be, there are some problems they simply cannot solve on their own. This was recently articulated by Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

  • Research and development can be expensive and hard to capture profits, such as in advanced batteries;
  • No single firm could possibly coordinate national projects like the smart grid or internet;
  • Firms often need assistance in applying academic innovations to the production process;
  • Manufacturers often face barriers to accessing credit for entry, expansion, and innovation; and
  • Manufacturers need assistance in exporting as well as push back against unfair trade practices.

The Commerce Department leads the federal government’s efforts to assist manufacturers with these challenges. For example, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program provides on-the-ground services. The International Trade Administration (ITA) helps manufacturers boost exports and seek relief from unfair trade practices. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) offers cutting edge research on production, innovation, and commercialization.

Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Canada: Intertwined through Manufacturing and Trade

Guest blog by Nicole Lamb-Hale, Assistant Secretary for Manufacturing and Services

Today, I joined members of the President’s Export Council (PEC), U.S. and Canadian officials and U.S. and Canadian businesses to discuss border trade opportunities and challenges between American and Canadian companies. Canada and the United States share a unique relationship = we share not only borders, but economies.

Canada and the United States’ economies are greatly intertwined. The two nations share the world’s largest and most comprehensive trading relationship, which supports millions of jobs in each country. However, Canada and the United States don’t simply trade goods with each other: we build things together and rely on each other’s markets to design and build products that compete in global markets.

In 2010, U.S. Exports to Canada were worth $249.1 billion, 19 percent of total U.S. exports. These exports include motor vehicles and parts, agricultural and construction machinery, computer equipment, iron and steel, basic chemicals and petroleum and coal products.  
The Administration will continue to work hard to help Michigan companies grow by breaking into foreign markets, increasing exports and creating jobs.
The simple fact is that the more American – and Michigan – companies export, the more they produce. The more they produce, the more workers they need. And that means jobs. Good paying jobs here at home.

Agencies Working Together Results in Manufacturers Now Hiring

Alternate Text

Cross-posted on the NIST MEP blog

UEMC, Inc., a woman-owned manufacturer located in San Antonio, Texas, is now hiring. The company has over 50 years of experience in contract sewing, screen printing and textile related manufacturing … and now sustainable manufacturing practices.

In October 2009, UEMC, Inc. participated in a local Lean. Clean. Energy. program as part of a national manufacturing sustainable effort. Five Federal Government Agencies—Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Labor, Small Business Administration and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) of The National Institute of Standards and Technology – have jointly created the E3 Initiative (Energy, Economy, Environment), which is focused on helping manufacturers implement sustainable manufacturing practices. The E3 program is designed to capture the knowledge and tools of the five agencies to run effective sustainability initiatives across the nation.

The E3 program benefits manufacturers throughout the country not only with cost savings, but also by providing access to technical and financial resources.

That’s exactly what UEMC, Inc. experienced. Linda Jordan, the CFO of UEMC, was quick to agree that E3 is about much more than just saving the company money and energy:

Helping U.S. Manufacturers Expand Exports

Guest post by Suresh Kumar, Assistant Secretary for Trade and Director General of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service.

Today, I had the opportunity to travel to West Virginia to discuss progress on President Obama’s National Export Initiative (NEI) and the promotion of U.S. manufacturing exports. As many of you might know, the NEI, announced in 2010, aims to double U.S. exports by the end of 2014. I’m glad to report that the NEI is off to a good start. Exports last year comprised 12.5 percent of GDP, up from the 11.2 percent recorded in 2009. 

In West Virginia, exports of merchandise grew 34 percent in 2010 -- double the national growth rate of 17 percent for goods and services. Thus far for 2011, the U.S. remains on pace to achieve the NEI goal.

The NEI is critical because we need to get more U.S. companies to export so that we can bolster our economy and support new jobs here in America. Of America’s 30 million companies, less than 1 percent export, and of those that do, 58 percent only sell to one market. The NEI helps creates deep market linkages and connects innovation to the marketplace. It also works to inform U.S. companies of their export potential, and the U.S. Government and private sector services available to help them sell internationally. 

Export Assistance at Work  

The International Trade Administration’s U.S. Commercial Service (CS) of the U.S. Department of Commerce operates a global network of 108 U.S. offices and locations in more than 75 countries comprising more than 1,400 trade specialists that provides U.S. business comprehensive, soup to nuts service and programs

West Virginia is an excellent example of how CS counseling and collaboration with businesses and state and local governments is resulting in many export sales for U.S. companies. Last year, CS offices in West Virginia offices recorded 53 export successes totaling more than $11 million.

Make It and Move It

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.)

Make It In America

Whip Hoyer discusses the Make It In America agenda with employees at Antenna Research Associates, Inc., a manufacturer in Maryland's fifth district.

Guest post by Rep. Steny Hoyer, Minority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives

American manufacturing helped make this the most prosperous country on earth—and it helped build a strong middle class. As we continue to focus on job creation and economic growth, I believe a key part of that effort must be rebuilding our manufacturing strength. That’s why House Democrats have created the Make It In America agenda: it’s about creating the conditions for American businesses to innovate here, create jobs here, make products here, and sell them to the world—and about making sure we have a workforce qualified for well-paying jobs. I believe strongly that when we make more products in America, more families will be able to Make It In America, as well.

Even as much of our economy has struggled, the manufacturing sector has consistently added jobs—it’s been a bright spot for our recovery. But the news isn’t all good. Manufacturing employment is still near its lowest point since World War II. And more worryingly, the index of manufacturing activity—a measure of the sector’s productivity and growth—fell sharply last month, to its lowest point since fall of 2009.

Whether or not you work in manufacturing, that ought to concern you for a number of reasons. Manufacturing stimulates more activity across our whole economy than any other sector—so a fall in manufacturing activity is felt across the economy, which is bad for all of us. It’s also bad for the middle class because manufacturing jobs pay better-than-average wages, and it’s bad for America’s competitiveness because China has overtaken us as the world leader in the dollar value of manufacturing output. Last but not least, a decline in manufacturing is bad for American innovation.  As assembly lines move overseas, innovation often follows to be closer to production.  That’s resulted in America losing the innovative lead in a number of technological fields, from precision optics to photovoltaic cells to computer chips—we can’t afford to lose ground elsewhere.

Assistant Secretary Fernandez To Mayors: "Manufacturing Goes Hand-in-Hand with Innovation"

Assistant Secretary Fernandez Tells Mayor's "manufacturing goes hand in hand with innovation"

Guest Blog by John Fernandez, Assistant Secretary for Economic Development.

I had the pleasure of addressing the National Conference of Black Mayors 2011 Legislative Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. today. I focused on what the Obama administration is doing to grow local economic ecosystems and help create jobs, particularly in manufacturing.

The summit of almost 40 mayors from across the nation was a great opportunity for intergovernmental collaboration and provided an excellent platform to share best practices and discuss the challenges of creating jobs and increasing competitiveness. 

As a former mayor myself, I understood the pressing issues facing these leaders. They are the same issues the Obama administration is aggressively tackling at the federal level. And they all boil down to creating more jobs, particularly in manufacturing.

The manufacturing sector currently employs over 11 million Americans, providing good-paying jobs for millions of families. Preparing Americans to enter into the manufacturing sector will not only strengthen the economy and put folks back to work, it’s critical to our nation’s success as we compete in a 21st century global economy. 

Growing Exports with the New Market Exporter Initiative

NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons tours Muscatine Foods in Iowa with the chairman of the company, Gage Kent.

Guest blog by Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Department of Commerce are working together to achieve President Obama’s goal of doubling exports by 2014. The New Market Exporter Initiative (NMEI) will make it easier for manufacturers to identify new markets, find new customers for their products and grow their business.

Exports are a key part of any competitiveness agenda. Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers live outside of the United States. With the right tools and resources, manufacturers can increase their exports and find new customers.

Many of these manufacturers don’t have the resources to conduct extensive research on new possible export markets. Small and medium-sized firms, for example, account for 95 percent of all exporters in the U.S., yet only about one-third of all exports. The NMEI helps small and medium-sized manufacturers that are currently exporting to one or two countries expand their export sales to new markets.