Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Monday, May 27, 2024

Because You Have to Make Things 

The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership announced by President Obama earlier today is forged upon the recognition that by connecting talent, investment and infrastructure, we can revitalize manufacturing in North America and get back to making things.

We each have our own "phrase-banks," internal lists of things we've read or heard that have resonated with us, struck a chord, elegantly said something we know to be right. Sometimes they come from passionate schoolteachers, or friends, or the wisdom of parents. We may get them from books or movies, or hear them in the remarks made by our leaders. They can be quirky one-liners or serious reflections; they can mean something to a lot of people or just to us. Whatever they may be, they crystallize and define ideas.

One of them, for me, came from Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). In 2008 she hosted a conference on sustainable manufacturing at NCMS. In her closing remarks, she said something evident, and simple, and true: "No matter what else you do," said the Senator, "you have to make things."

The world economy is in trouble, in part because the once-great powerhouses of manufacturing have stopped making things. Making things means jobs across a whole rainbow of sectors; it means security, a strong economy, a contribution to our existence. By default, if you do not make something, you make nothing.

Though he may not have heard Senator Stabenow's remark, President Obama seems to agree with its meaning. Speaking at Carnegie-Mellon University today, the President announced the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP), a new national effort devoted to collaboration between industry, academia and federal government, empowered to drive innovative technologies and manufacturing opportunities that will create quality jobs and enhance global competitiveness. The AMP concept is not some casual political bone-throw, and we must not dismiss it as such. Its very basis is forged upon the recognition that by connecting talent, investment and infrastructure, we can revitalize manufacturing in North America and get back to making things — and with the visionary approach described by AMP, we'll not just make things, but pursue new and innovative ways of doing so, with an eye toward the future and the possibilities that tomorrow's manufacturing economy can promise.

The President's initiative explicitly describes pursuits that will fuel new or essential competitive business models:

  • Domestic manufacturing capabilities in national security.
  • Reduced time to market for advanced materials.
  • Next-generation robotics.
  • Sustainability across the manufacturing and product lifecycle.

Let's put those drivers into more casual language...

  • We need to build things that keep us safe, and keep innovating new ones.
  • We need to get stuff created and into the marketplace quickly.
  • We need to pounce on robotics, a segment that is only just beginning to hint at what it will mean to our lives.
  • We need to think about our product as we build them today, and how they will impact our world tomorrow.

AMP is about opportunity and improvement. Rather than carry on making things the way we always have, through AMP we will optimize our processes and collaborate with thinkers and doers alike. The AMP announcement embraces collaboration, which, when done right, optimizes the process, reduces risk, and helps ensure ongoing competitiveness. Forget the Kumbaya "let's work together" implication; yes, we should work together, but that's just the emotional part. Rationally, if manufacturing, academia and federal commitment work together, they'll combine brains, capabilities and empowerment that otherwise exist separately.

Manufacturing knows how to make. Academia knows how to envision. And government support will offer the investment and encouragement to keep this meeting of mind and action on the right track. We won't just make things, we'll be better at making them, faster at making them, more forward-thinking about making them. And that is way cooler than "just" making things. It's making things the right way!

The President outlined key investment and support through a number of agencies as part of his AMP vision: from the government, DARPA, alongside the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce from academia, a smorgasbord of top universities including CMU, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Michigan; and from manufacturing, leaders like Procter & Gamble. Support, vision, and execution, side by side.

Get on board. Our leaders — whatever you may think of their overall views — have recognized that to succeed we must make things, and that there's a right way to do it — collaboratively, collectively, and with an eye toward winning the future. History shows that when those stars have aligned, we can make truly amazing things happen.

President Obama sees that the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership can revitalize industry, and that a revitalized industry is certain to strengthen our economy, prosperity and competitiveness. With that goal — strengthening those things — as a driving force, the nation can accomplish anything at all, and thrive while doing so. While leaders in manufacturing have long known that something like this can promote success, we have needed our leaders in government to make such initiatives a reality. Now, with AMP, a huge step has been taken. The full potential of AMP lies not in what it will do to empower us, but in its recognition that such empowerment is what we need to flourish.

Senator Stabenow said "you need to make things." She is right, and the Administration seems keen on actions that will help us accomplish that obvious agenda. No one, regardless of political views, can disagree with the core conviction that a successful nation is one that builds.

moon landingAt Carnegie-Mellon, President Obama announced a bold new statement of conviction regarding our potential to innovate, compete and leap forward. At the risk of over-saturating ourselves with political quotes, humor me as I cast the opportunity AMP provides in the context of just one more. This one's from a different President, speaking 30 years ago at a different university, initializing a different but equally bold plan: "Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, 'why climb the highest mountain?' …We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."

Perhaps the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership is not quite as spellbinding as a trip to the moon. But look at it this way — landing on the moon was not some singular event. It was the culmination of many collaborative successes. AMP isn't the lunar landing, it's the million previous innovations that made the mission possible. The small steps that, when you think about it, are even more significant than the giant leap.