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Friday, 27 January 2012

MIT faculty see promise in American manufacturing

MIT News
Jan 25, 2012

Graphic: Christine Daniloff

As the United States seeks to reinvigorate its job market and move past economic recession, MIT News examines manufacturing’s role in America’s economic future through this series on work at the Institute around manufacturing.

Not long ago, MIT political scientist Suzanne Berger was visiting a factory in western Massachusetts, a place that produces the plastic jugs you find in grocery stores. As she saw on the factory floor, the company has developed an innovative automation system that has increased its business: Between 2004 and 2008, its revenues doubled, and its workforce did, too. Moreover, the firm has found a logical niche: Since plastic jugs are both bulky and inexpensive, it’s not economical to produce them overseas and ship them to the United States, simply to fill them with, say, milk or syrup.

“Is this just an odd little story?” Berger asks. “Actually, no.” While the decline of American manufacturing has been widely trumpeted — manufacturing jobs in the United States have dropped from 20 million in 1979 to about 12 million today — conglomerates such as Procter & Gamble and high-tech firms such as Dow Corning have kept significant amounts of manufacturing in the country. Moreover, 3,500 manufacturing companies across the United States — not just the jug-making firm in Massachusetts — doubled their revenues between 2004 and 2008. With that in mind, Berger asks, “How can we imagine enabling these firms to branch out into more innovative activities as well?”

That is the kind of problem Berger and 19 of her faculty colleagues at MIT are now studying as part of a two-year Institute-wide research project called Production in the Innovation Economy (PIE), which is focused on renewing American manufacturing. The guiding premise of PIE is that the United States still produces a great deal of promising basic research and technological innovation; what is needed is a better sense of how to translate those advances into economic growth and new jobs.

As Berger puts it, “The single most important question in the study is: What kind of manufacturing do we need in order to get full value out of our innovation strengths?”

That question is currently at the forefront of MIT’s concerns as well. Institute President Susan Hockfield is serving as a co-chair of the steering committee of President Barack Obama’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP), which in June will give policy recommendations to the White House about renewing American manufacturing. PIE is not a subset of AMP, but arises from similar concerns about applying technology in the national interest.
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