Manufacturing Helps Innovation?

Does manufacturing help innovation? No one knows for sure because it hasn’t been studied academically. This topic is now beginning to get attention. MIT Susan Hockfield has an initiative to reinvent manufacturing in the US. Following are notes from an MIT forum on the topic from an article in the Boston Globe.

MIT has a new Production in the Innovative Economy Committee and the co-chair, Suzanne Berger says that not much work has been done studying the relationship between research and development in relation to manufacturing.  The question they are beginning to look at is how much sending production overseas hurt companies’ ability to innovate.

Manufacturing Moved from China to US

An MIT materials science professor co-founded a company to make better lithium ion car batteries. He said they wanted to start production but all the battery companies had moved production overseas. There was no one in the US that had a factory or the expertise in manufacturing. They had to go to South Korea and China to get the beginning knowledge to start up manufacturing. Now they have their own plants here in the US and find it very important. It allows them to play with product design, manufacturing procedures, and experiment with new ideas for quality improvement.

Why China and Why China is Bad for US Manufacturing & Innovation

MIT professor Ed Steinfeld said that a number of companies are almost forced to locate in China. They license cutting edge technology from universities or other companies and want to go into production quickly. There is not the expertise in the US so they go to China for a commercial scale demonstration project. Since that is China, they then go to full scale production there. The US loses out. All that expertise could stay here if we had more infrastructure.

Loss of Jobs & Expertise

Manufacturing accounted for one third of the jobs in 1950 and it has dropped to only 10% of the jobs in the US. The last two recessions in 2001 and 2008 took a fairly heavy toll on manufacturing companies. Massachusetts has lost jobs, but because of their hi-tech sector, they haven’t been hit as badly as some others have been. These sectors include medical, biotech and advanced electronic equipment.

Several people commented that despite the relatively good position of Massachusetts, that more work needed to be done to train workers for hi tech jobs.  Although there are not the studies proving it, a number of people commented that if was important to do something about the manufacturing base so that our innovation didn’t decline.