Michigan picked for manufacturing hub

By Yardain Amron, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 25, 2014

At a press conference at the White House Tuesday, President Barack Obama began with a joke.

“Basically I’m here to announce we’re building Iron Man,” Obama said. “I’m going to blast off in a second.”

While there was no blastoff, the joke alluded to a new manufacturing innovation institute focused on lightweight and modern metals that will open in Metro Detroit this spring.

The American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute involves a conglomerate of more than 50 companies, nonprofits and universities — including the University of Michigan — and is expected to create 10,000 jobs in the region during the next five years.

The $148 million high-tech hub is part of a larger $1 billion government project to create a national network for manufacturing innovation to revitalize and specialize domestic manufacturing in the face of rising global competition.

“In the 2000s alone, we lost about one third of all American manufacturing jobs — and the middle class suffered for it,” Obama said. “Now the good news today is that our manufacturers have added more than 620,000 new manufacturing jobs over the last four years. That’s the first sustained manufacturing growth in over 20 years.”

University President Mary Sue Coleman and Jack Hu, interim vice president for research, both served on a working group that recommended the creation of the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation in 2011.

“Through this initiative, our region will build on its core strengths to become the nation’s technology hub for lightweight materials and manufacturing,” Coleman said in a statement. “Companies from around the country will come here not only because of our technological capabilities, but also because we have the workforce they need in their efforts to revitalize and transform domestic manufacturing.”

The ALMMII will focus on innovations in lightweight metals — a key component in increasing fuel efficiency by reducing weight — by facilitating the process between new innovations and adoption for use in cars, trucks, airplanes and ships.

Engineering Prof. Alan Taub, who will serve as ALMMII’s chief technology officer, said the hub will take theoretical technologies and turn them into manufactured realities at an affordable cost.

“Today, when a company wants to lighten the structural part — whether it’s of a navy ship, a commercial aircraft, or a light vehicle — it costs more money to do it, and our goal is to produce manufacturing technologies that can make those changes more affordable,” Taub said.

Taub added that the city of Detroit would benefit from the new hub.

“It’s jobs,” Taub said. “It’s where we're going to train the workforce, everything from engineers to plant line operators, and it would be natural then beyond the traditional companies for additional companies to locate here in order to use this new technology.”

The projection of 10,000 jobs created will largely be generated through metal stamping, metalworking, machining and casting industries that will benefit from the new technologies piloted at the ALMMII.

While the University’s role at the ALMMII will shrink after the first five years, Hu said the connection would remain.

“(ALMMII) is an independent entity even though the University is a co-founder,” Hu said. “But I think in order for the technology to be used by industry, you need that intermediate organization to help with the translation because research at a university is very basic and cannot be directly applied by industry. So by having institutes like this, you make the technologies more mature and ready for industrial use. We may not be as closely involved after the first five years, but still our ties with the institute and other around the country will continue.”

On Tuesday afternoon, a writer for the University News Service tweeted a picture of Sen. Carl Levin (D–Mich.) joined by Taub and Hu at the White House announcement.

Levin lauded Obama’s announcement in a statement released Tuesday.

“The investment announced today will mean the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Michigan Tech and Wayne State University will team with other great academic institutions, as well as nonprofit groups such as Focus:HOPE and a wide array of industry partners, to advance new technologies that will bring important capabilities to our military and new economic opportunities for our people,” Levin wrote.

Two hubs like ALMMII have already been built — one in Youngstown, Ohio specializing in 3-D printing and a second in Raleigh, North Carolina specializing in energy-efficient electronics — and Obama plans to launch four more this year.

Despite the positive outlook, other developed industrial powers are racing to create innovation centers of their own — providing competition for the American initiative. Germany already has a vast network of 60 high-tech hubs, and Obama called on Congress to not become complacent.

"I don’t want the next big job creating discovery to come from Germany or China or Japan, I want it to be made here in America,” Obama said. “So we’ve got to focus on advanced manufacturing to keep that manufacturing here in the United States. That’s what’s going to help get the next Stark Industries off the ground.”