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NSF Engineering, a leader in advanced manufacturing

Perspective of the NSF Assistant Director for Engineering

December 19, 2013

Manufacturing is at the core of advanced industrial societies. It allows us to put the discoveries and inventions from fundamental scientific and engineering research into the hands of people. Increasingly, the development of new technologies and the manufacture of useful products rely on new knowledge from many scientific disciplines.

NSF and the Directorate for Engineering have long led the development of fundamental principles of and knowledge base for manufacturing. We have supported the pursuit of frontier research to bring about transformational advances in manufacturing. For example, additive manufacturing grew, in part, from NSF investments in the 1970s and 1980s. Looking forward, we expect that our broad portfolio of current research investments (see the programs and partnerships listed below) will lead to new paradigms for manufacturing in the coming decades.

In the future, manufacturing will be distributed, Internet-enabled, personalized, digital, and dynamic. New web-based tools are allowing producers to work with suppliers around the globe, improving reliability even through most disruptions. Web-based tools also are allowing producers to connect with consumers in completely new ways.

Advances in materials and processing will help the nation produce goods in ways that are efficient and sustainable. Such advances are essential if we are to meet the enormous global needs for energy, water, food, medicine, transporation, etc. as the world population increases to 9 billion by 2050.

One can imagine a world in which consumers can customize manufactured goods to meet their tastes and needs with artistic flair and high quality at reasonable cost. The “maker movement” is putting the tools for design and manufacturing of products into the hands of creative and entrepreneurial individuals. Crowdsourcing is allowing aspiring designers and entrepreneurs to get seed funding outside the usual channels.

Increasingly, services are being integrated into manufactured products in many sectors, increasing product value and accessibility. This so-called “servitization” of products will create new ways of thinking about design, manufacturing, and services. The “smart” manufacturing enterprise, a form of smart service system, is expected in the future to increase productivity, efficiency, and customization. (The PFI:BIC program is designed to enable “smart” service systems -- see below.)

New economic and business models will emerge as servitization becomes widespread. At the same time, one can envision the extension of principles and techniques that have revolutionized the manufacturing sector to dramatically transform other business sectors. If we are successful in realizing these visions, the societal benefits can be enormous.

Enabling future possibilities

To lay the foundations for novel manufacturing advances, programs across the Engineering Directorate and NSF are currently supporting research that moves the frontiers in materials, designs, processes, and systems for large-scale production into entirely new territories. They are also pursuing new research domains where multiple disciplines converge.

Some promising frontier research areas, with examples of NSF funding opportunities, are listed below:

Catalyzing manufacturing innovations

To nurture the translation of basic research findings into commercial manufacturing technologies, NSF strategically invests in academic and small business research that spurs innovation and commercialization.

The Engineering Directorate actively supports translational research and partnerships for advanced manufacturing. While the Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI) and Innovation CorpsTM programs support small teams of entrepreneurial researchers, other programs help establish broader partnerships with manufacturers.

The Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) investigate enabling and systems technologies, which are demonstrated in academic-scale proof-of-concept test beds. Among the current ERCs, five are pursuing advances for manufacturing:

  • ERC for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC),
  • ERC for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power (CCEFP),
  • ERC for Structured Organic Particulate Systems (C-SOPS),
  • Nanosystems ERC for Nanomanufacturing Systems for Mobile Computing and Mobile Energy Technologies (NASCENT), and
  • Synthetic Biology ERC (SynBERC).

The Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRCs) conduct research that is directly relevant to their industrial and government members. At present, more than a dozen I/UCRCs work in manufacturing, materials, and related areas.

Partnerships for Innovation (PFI) build connections between academic researchers and the business community to accelerate and nurture technology translation. The program Partnerships for Innovation: Building Innovation Capacity (PFI:BIC) currently focuses on platform technologies to enable “smart” service systems.

NSF directly supports the development of proofs of concepts and scaling up of production through programs for Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR), a $160 million investment in FY 2013. A substantial portion of these companies perform research in advanced manufacturing, materials, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and other relevant areas.

Leveraging through partnerships

To leverage investments in research, education, and partnerships, NSF collaborates with other federal agencies and industry. To spur economic growth from advanced manufacturing, a few interrelated activities are now underway.

NSF helped design the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, which will engage regional hubs to accelerate the development and adoption of cutting-edge manufacturing technologies for making new, globally competitive products. The first of these hubs, America Makes: the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), was launched in August 2012, and three more are anticipated in 2014.

NSF Engineering is also involved in a Federal partnership launched in 2013 and led by the Department of Commerce, called the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) and designed to foster manufacturing development at the community level.

In fall 2013, NSF participated in the launch of AMP 2.0 -- the second round of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. AMP 2.0 is a multi-agency effort to spur both research and education in advanced manufacturing in order to strengthen the national economy and to improve our quality of life.

These collaborations enable NSF and Engineering grantees to enhance entrepreneurship and technological commercialization for the advancement of manufacturing.

Dr. Pramod Khargonekar
NSF Assistant Director for Engineering

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