Recently I traveled to San Francisco to participate in a conference of leading women, across all fields including science, medicine, the arts and industry. As I talked about my organization, the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS), I noticed that for the first time ever, the audience’s eyes didn’t glaze over; in fact, people actually asked questions!
Now, this isn’t to say that what my company does is not important, meaningful and cutting edge; but let’s face it, collaborative research & development, focused on manufacturing is not normally the talk at cocktail parties. After the conference, I couldn’t help but wonder, what has changed.
Maybe it’s because the issue of manufacturing is so much in the news these days. It pops up in many stump speeches, especially so close to the election, and it’s true, the Administration has taken on a renewed interest. I’m hoping it’s because the public is following suit and coming to the realization that this sector of our economy is essential to continued health of the United States. Manufacturing is about more than factory floors and smokestacks, and it has suffered an unfair reputation for too long – as something we have to do, but not something anyone really wants to do. When we hear candidates remind us that manufacturing is essential to the United States, too many people for too long have thought - “Yes, it is essential… but I still don’t want to do it myself.” That’s changing. For a long time no one thought manufacturing was very cool. Now, new manufacturing technologies that can’t be described as anything other than cool are suddenly drawing a lot of attention, and hopefully changing the dialogue.
Interestingly, a lot of discussion at the conference came around the idea of additive manufacturing. Everyone seems to have heard about it but do not understand how it actually works; how an object is “printed.” After going into a basic explanation, I encouraged them to visit the Autodesk Gallery before they left San Francisco, and get a taste of the power of digital manufacturing. A member of NCMS, the impressive gallery shows how Autodesk customers use digital technology for everything from 3D architectural models to media and entertainment to a digitally printed motorcycle. You’re creating something from nothing. Well, not nothing, but close enough – it’s basically the first step toward a Star Trek replicator. 3D printing is manufacturing, pure and simple, but you can’t look at those objects materializing, layer by layer, and equate it with that wrongheaded view of manufacturing as dull, dreary, filthy, and simplistic.
At one of the breaks, I had the pleasure of speaking with Marilynne Eichinger, former President of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry who founded Museum Tour, an educational toy, book and learning catalog which includes items from 22 national museums and educational institutions. Each year the catalog has one “feature” item, for 2012 it’s a full size T-Rex skeleton. For $249K, it would make a great entry way piece, don’t you think? After our conversation about manufacturing, she’s thinking of a 3D printer for next season’s catalog. Manufacturing is even making its way into our museums! (and let’s not forget that by the time her catalog rolls around to dinosaur skeletons again, they’ll probably be able to sell 3D printed ones for just a fraction of the cost of that T-Rex).
This isn’t all about 3D printing, though that stands to be one of the most disruptive and exciting technologies of this century. All around the world people are thinking differently of manufacturing. The perception shift is slow, and has a long journey ahead of it, but it is coming. Remember Intel’s old advertising campaign, with those guys dancing in Day-Glo clean-room bunny suits? There was a subsurface message there, beyond the silly one: these chips, these families of transistors that power your word processors, your websites, your video games, your very business – these things are manufactured. So whenever someone hears that word and conjures up an image of a greasy line worker hunched over flywheels or gearbox cases in a dingy factory, they can (and should) also conjure up building semiconductors so precise their components are literally atoms across, and doing it in rooms so clean that you won’t find a single mote of dust in 60,000 square feet.
Think about that, the reach that manufacturing is having throughout society today. It’s no longer on the periphery; it’s essential, if not yet exactly exciting or cool. It’s cutting edge, it’s simulating models at mind-blowing speeds, it’s populating the shop floors of some of the biggest corporations of our time and it’s making its way into the conversation, cross-industry. Who knows, next cocktail party, manufacturing may be the discussion of the night. Parents in the PTA will be comparing notes on the best 3D printer for the home, and the solar system science project or diorama will never be the same.