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Technology Clusters: The Ultimate Collaboration

Last week, the Obama Administration held a workshop entitled "Blueprint for Action: Design of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI)" at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration in Huntsville, Alabama. This heavily attended workshop included representatives from government, academia and industry – all convening to collaborate around the design of the proposed NNMI public-private partnership program.

The main objective for the event was to provide a forum for the Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office (AMNPO) to present and discuss the preliminary design of the NNMI, its regional Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs), and to review public comments received by the AMNPO in response to the May 4th, 2012 request for public input on the network. The report was "crowd sourced" according to the Administration officials and reflected various points of view on technology focus as well as Institute form and governance.

Rebecca Taylor, Senior Vice President at the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) was honored to moderate a plenary panel around perspectives in building technology clusters. NCMS and its regional partners were recently awarded a $2.19M grant through the Joint Innovation Accelerator Challenge for Advanced Manufacturing and are currently in the midst of launching InnoState, a cluster initiative in Southeast Michigan. With her expertise in cluster formation and collaborations at NCMS, Ms. Taylor was able to speak from experience on the importance of technology clusters: the ultimate collaboration between government, academia and industry.

Panelists included Ron Davis, Executive Director of the University of Alabama's Entrepreneurship Institute as well as President of the Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association (AAMA). Also representing the region was Bethany Clem Shockney Dean, Business/CIS, Technologies & Workforce Development at Calhoun Community College. From the government side, Jennifer Fielding, Deputy Program Manager, Defense-wide Manufacturing Science and Technology at the Air Force Research Laboratory gave the Federal perspective and Ralph Resnick, President and Executive Director of the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining talked about how to put together a winning team. NCDMM was awarded the first NNMI center for additive manufacturing.

In her opening remarks, Ms. Taylor stated that "Clusters are concentrations of interconnected companies, suppliers, service providers, and associated institutions in a particular sector that are present in a region. Clusters come together because they have the potential to increase the productivity of the partners." In many industries, clusters tend to form organically, as organizations with shared activities and interests in the same region gravitate toward one another. The economic opportunity well-managed clusters represent is significant, allowing for shared resources to reduce the risk of innovation, and keeping intellectual property and skilled talent in a region.

She noted that clusters have become high on the agenda of governments, companies, educational institutions and other stakeholders in regional economies. Cluster-based economic development is founded in the concept of targeting investments to conform to the economic strengths of the region, identify and grow new strengths over time, and increase the concentration of inter-dependent, growth-oriented enterprises in the regional economy. Even though some cluster members may technically be competitors, the value of a cluster model far outweighs any potential competitive issues: economic and funding opportunities, reduced risk innovation, and business-to-business support go hand in hand with a robust cluster environment. Regional support and funding opportunities are much more likely to go to clusters than to individual organizations, as collaborative, self-selecting groups such as technology clusters are an inherently lower-risk investment.

Cross-disciplinary participation is a crucial element in a successful technology cluster; the most vigorous regional clusters tend to include like-minded representatives from a variety of fields related to the cluster's core technology or business. Ms. Taylor explained that successful partnerships include key players such as OEMS, supplier firms, researchers, economic development practitioners, consultants, and any other individual or entity from industry, academia, or the regional community who has skills, expertise, or resources that are of value to the industry. Variety in how competences are applied (the difference, for example, between a semiconductor manufacturer and a University semiconductor research facility) creates a strong cluster foundation and enhances the cluster’s scope of capability.

Another important attribute of successful clusters is effective collaboration among the members. Technically, a cluster is just a collection of like-minded entities that share a region. Such a grouping may be a "cluster" in name, but it lacks the strength and versatility of a true collaborative engagement. And well managed, quality collaboration is difficult to pull off. The mere co-location of companies, suppliers, and institutions creates the potential for economic value; it does not necessarily ensure its realization. To see optimal results, efforts should be administered by a neutral collaborative management leader. Easier said than done, it takes a lot of experience and talent to manage partnerships that can contribute to the economic growth of a region. And that, explained Ms. Taylor, is the secret sauce that NCMS provides: a pioneering collaborative management model that has won nearly 30 international awards and made NCMS the global leader in cross-industry collaborative leadership, with more than 25 years of experience bringing diverse groups together to approach technology challenges.

Recognizing that a vibrant advanced manufacturing sector is vital to the American economy and national security, the NNMI has the potential to advance American manufacturing through the development of an infrastructure of innovation ecosystems. The proposed Institutes will be a partnership between government, industry, and academia to address the needs of small and medium sized manufacturers, the key to the health of our industrial base. Coupled with education and workforce training, the initiative can have a substantial impact on the economy and improve the overall health of the manufacturing industry.

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