Academics turn minds to factories for new era

MIT leads effort to reinvent field

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Kenny Curran (left) and Alex Schwarzkopf at Wentworth’s new manufacturing lab.

Over the last decade, more than 3 million Americans have lost their jobs as factory workers. It is a safe bet that most have little in common with Suzanne Berger. She has spent four decades as a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has 50 scholarly tomes and treatises to her credit, several written in French. She stands about 5 feet tall.

She does not, in other words, fit the stereotype of a burly worker on an assembly line. But Berger and other academics like her may represent the new face of American manufacturing.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Professor Peter Rourke with students at the Wentworth Institute of Technology’s new $3 million manufacturing lab.

Led by MIT and spurred by a $500 million White House initiative, universities nationwide are helping reinvent one of the country’s most critical industries. They are pouring money and political capital into measures that reach across disciplines to devise new products and produce them en masse. Create new ways of making stuff, the thinking goes, and you create jobs for hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

 

But these factories most surely are not the factories of the 20th century. They are full of high-tech machines that cost more than a Ferrari. They use advanced robots to perform precise tasks and nanoscale technology that alters the fundamental properties of materials. They often make their products in a fraction of the time it used to take.

“This isn’t just about ways of moving widgets around,’’ Berger said. “What we’re talking about is a whole new set of technologies.’’

Several manufacturing innovations have already sprung from MIT labs. A123 Systems, which makes powerful lithium-based batteries for hybrid and electric cars, grew out of technology developed there. A molecular engineering lab run by MIT professor Bernhardt Trout is pioneering ways to make pills more quickly and give them longer shelf life.

At many schools, enthusiasm for manufacturing is trickling down to students.

“They’re really excited about it. When I announce a course on that topic, it fills up immediately,’’ said Peter Rourke, a professor at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, which just opened a $3 million manufacturing lab.

It is immaculate and brightly lit - a far cry from Wentworth’s old shop, which hadn’t had a comprehensive update since World War II. In the back, there is a 3-D printer; in the front, machines that transform chunky blocks of aluminum into sleekly sculpted pieces in a few minutes based on computerized designs students draw up in their dorm rooms.

The lab is such a hit that it has become the site of illicit activity. “I caught one kid secretly running a business out of here,’’ Rourke said. “He had made a part for an automobile out of a tough, energy-absorbing advanced plastic, and people liked it so much that he immediately started taking orders.’’

This isn’t the first time universities have tried to reinvigorate manufacturing. MIT in particular has a long history of working with industries to improve their processes.

In the 1980s, when the electronics industry started hemorrhaging jobs to Japan, Berger and others from the university were summoned to help, releasing a report that defined the crisis and suggested strategies to stem it. “We were losing industries that we had come to think of as an American birthright,’’ she said. “The university’s president at the time said, ‘If there is a national problem, MIT ought to be doing something about it.’ ’’

Something similar is happening now.

MIT has always had scientists and economists working on projects relevant to manufacturing. But its professors weren’t working together in a broad-based fashion to solve the issue until recently.

“We’d been doing a hell of a lot of work without an organizational principle or an initiative to gather it all,’’ said Marty Schmidt, an MIT electrical engineer. “There wasn’t a cross-cutting dialogue.’’

That all began to change in the last year. Susan Hockfield, MIT’s president, has made manufacturing a university-wide priority. The school is midway through a project called Production in the Innovation Economy, a sort of update on the Berger group’s 1980s report that will suggest ways American innovation can translate into a stronger manufacturing industry.

Hockfield is also spearheading the larger initiative by President Obama, the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a brainchild of the administration that involves a swath of huge investments, including $70 million for robotics and $100 million for a project that would help computer scientists design materials quickly.

The initiative pulls together some of the most important federal agencies, including the departments of defense, homeland security, energy, agriculture, and commerce. It is drawing on resources at MIT and five other universities: Carnegie Mellon University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Jump-starting an entire economic sector, of course, will be tough. It will require not just technological innovation but political and economic change, Governor Deval Patrick said at a summit MIT held last week: “The universities can’t do it alone.’’

Several participants at the summit noted that federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation historically have not funded the type of applied research necessary to kick-start manufacturing.

“In the past if a proposal was of an applied nature and it went to Washington, you’d hear, ‘Well, this isn’t basic research so we’re not going to fund it,’ ’’ said Carl Lawton, director of the Massachusetts BioManufacturing Center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “If the agencies don’t change, this effort is going to fall on its face.’’

But other barriers exist that could prevent effective collaboration between academics and industry - some legal (almost everyone agreed on the need for intellectual property reform), some social. Industry needs to work more closely with academia, but “there’s a suspicion of academics,’’ said Stan Gershwin, an MIT mechanical engineer with a longtime interest in manufacturing. “They don’t necessarily see what they’re doing as a subject of research.’’

Still, researchers and industry executives remain bullish about forging a partnership.

“We are putting something together where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts - economists are challenging engineers, and engineers are challenging economists,’’ Schmidt said. “We have a real rallying cry.’’