Advanced Manufacturing: Where is America Today?

Advanced Manufacturing: Where is America Today? (full article)
By: Jonathan Katz –
Posted: September 22, 2010


Manufacturers are using a combination of technologies, processes and education to promote a new era of U.S. manufacturing that can’t be easily replicated by competitors.

Workers at the Corning Inc. Harrodsburg, Ky., plant probably look east with some trepidation. The facility previously produced LCD glass for Asian customers, but demand for larger-sized glass made it impractical to ship overseas, says Don McCabe, Corning’s senior vice president of manufacturing and performance excellence. The company also wanted to move closer to its customers, so it shifted LCD production from Harrodsburg to Asia.

Advanced manufacturing is most commonly referenced as the use of high-tech processes, often involving factory automation, or the development of innovative products. Nanotechnology, direct digital fabrication and micro manufacturing are a few of the technologies that fit into the advanced manufacturing category (see sidebar “Advancing Manufacturing to the Future”), says Shreyes Melkote, engineering professor and interim director of Georgia Tech’s Manufacturing Research Center.

The Anderson Economic Group in Michigan defines advanced manufacturing operations as those that “create advanced products, use innovative techniques in their manufacturing, and are inventing new processes and technologies for future manufacturing.” The research center published a report in July that highlighted collaboration in Michigan between industry and education to develop advanced-manufacturing processes and technologies.

But advanced manufacturing is about more than just technology, say other experts. “It’s not just robotics,” says Rusty Patterson, president and CEO of the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing. “It can encompass new manufacturing technologies that we’ve developed that other people don’t have; it can be processing technologies that we’ve developed that others don’t have, including automation; it even can be areas where the education level is such that it can’t be readily duplicated in Third World countries,” says Patterson, whose group advocates public policies that foster advanced manufacturing.

Steven Dwyer, president and CEO of advanced-manufacturing consortium Conexus Indiana, includes continuous-improvement principles such as lean manufacturing, Six Sigma and Total Quality Management as critical components of advanced manufacturing. “It doesn’t have to be the next generation of product that advanced manufacturing applies to,” says Dwyer, former Rolls-Royce Corp. president and chief operating officer.

In essence, says Dwyer, “it’s really a different approach to manufacturing.”

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Despite pressure from overseas, manufacturing continues at the central Kentucky facility that’s been in operation since 1952 and is considered Corning’s glass-melting technology center. About one year ago, plant engineers discovered a new use for a decades-old Corning technology now known as Gorilla Glass. It was the third major product transformation for the plant since it opened, says McCabe.

Gorilla Glass has become one of the company’s fastest-growing products and is currently produced exclusively in Harrodsburg. That’s expected to change soon when a Corning plant in Japan begins producing the specialty glass used in mobile electronic devices. But the Harrodsburg plant has shown resiliency similar to the Gorilla Glass it produces through continued innovation and flexibility that’s helped it survive several market shifts. It’s the type of nimbleness and focus on cutting-edge developments that some people refer to as “advanced manufacturing.”

Advanced manufacturing is a term that’s been used loosely to explain any number of methods that take manufacturing operations to another level not easily replicated by competitors. Economic departments, politicians and manufacturing leaders use the phrase to describe where U.S. manufacturers need to be in the future if they’re going to remain globally competitive.

What is Advanced Manufacturing?