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Skilled workforce: Key to U.S. manufacturing success

Posted: 06 Mar 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:manufacturing? IC design? design automation?

Reviving U.S. manufacturing is a hot issue in the United States. In an Energy Department (DoE) conference recently held, an entire afternoon was devoted to discussing the barriers to domestic manufacturing and obstacles to retraining the U.S. manufacturing workforce. The summit was sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy.

Experts in the conference agreed that this workforce should have the design skills that are integral to modern manufacturing as well as "soft skills" such as critical thinking, leadership and collaborative abilities.

Corporate executives, educators, current and former bureaucrats and an ex-congressman all weighed in on the erosion of the American manufacturing base and how to return it to global competitiveness. Most argued that labor costs and energy usage aren't the key barriers; what is needed is a revival of flexible, design-driven manufacturing and a new, modular approach to training the next generation of machinists, engineers and technical managers.

Throughout the preceding two centuries, the U.S. led the world in deploying disruptive technologies ranging from railroads and the telegraph to an electrical grid and communications networks. No more, argued market researcher Stefan Heck of McKinsey & Co. "Where we are lacking is the guts to deploy new technologies."

Heck's use of the word "guts" refers not only to the infrastructure needed to roll out new technologies by the willingness to take risks in order to reap the benefits of new energy and other innovations. He argued that much of the semiconductor industry has left the U.S. not because of labor costswhich account for only about 2 percent of the chip production costsbut because most U.S. chip makers "haven't been willing to make the investment" in the capital equipment needed to operate advanced chips plants.

Heck, who worked closely with global chip companies before shifting his focus to cleantech, was among a range of experts addressing manufacturing and workforce issues during the summit. Leo Christodoulou, program manager for DoE's advanced manufacturing office, noted that manufacturing currently accounts for 11 percent of the U.S. GDP, employs about 12 million U.S. workers and about 60 percent of U.S. scientists and engineers work in manufacturing-related fields.

The DoE office is looking for ways to promote manufacturing clusters that leverage the local and regional characteristics of U.S. manufacturing. Further, Christodoulou's office is attempting to identify the "keystone, foundational technologies" that the U.S. can exploit to revive manufacturing. Two, he noted, are a superior communications infrastructure and first-rate universities.

Identifying and developing new materials and manufacturing methods are among the next steps in forming regional and state clusters focused on value-added manufacturing, he added. Together, these advances could help transform American manufacturing into an agile, design-driven sector capable of thriving in a global technology competition that places a premium on being the first to deliver innovative products.

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