US Manufacturing: A Modern-Day Renaissance
|PhD candidate Adam Paxson (left) points to a live display of a condensing surface to Professor Kripa Varanasi (center) and postdoctoral researcher Sushant Anand (right). (Photo credit: Tony Pulsone)||Graduate student Aron Blaesi shows a coated pharmaceutical pill produced by his experimental apparatus to Professor Jung-Hoon Chun. (Photo credit: Tony Pulsone)|
by Alissa Mallinson
On the surface, it would seem like manufacturing in the US is all but dead and gone.
But take a closer look—at the approximately 11% US gross domestic product (GDP) from manufacturing, or the US’s sustained lead in global manufacturing (20% of global manufacturing value added [MVA]), for example—and you just might have a change of heart.
In the Department of Mechanical Engineering, manufacturing has been a part of our DNA since the creation of our first lab in 1874 with the donation of a steam engine—all the way to 1977, when MechE Professor Nam Suh created the interdepartmental Lab for Manufacturing and Productivity (LMP), to which many MechE professors currently belong, including Assistant Professor Tonio Buonassisi; Professor Jung-Hoon Chun, director of LMP; Associate Professor Martin Culpepper; Professor Timothy Gutowski; Professor David E. Hardt; Professor Sanjay E. Sarma; Professor David Trumper; and Associate Professor Kripa Varanasi.
Today, MIT continues to lead in manufacturing, spearheading in-depth research and analysis on the subject just as it did with 1989’s industrial productivity report Made in America. When President Obama recently expressed his commitment to spark a “renaissance in [US] manufacturing,” he called on MIT President Susan Hockfield to co-lead a government program called the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP), tasked with the goal of sparking such a resurgence. Here on campus, President Hockfield has commissioned a group of faculty to assess the state of US manufacturing, initiating the Production in the Innovation Economy (PIE) project. PIE is a cross-disciplinary look at how to optimize production capabilities in the US for competition in the global marketplace, with a focus on innovation, incubation, technological advancement, education, and partnerships. Professor Hardt, Professor Sarma, and Ford Professor and Department Head Mary C. Boyce sit on the commission. These two programs posit that not only is manufacturing still alive and well in the US, but it is imperative to a healthy economy, national security, innovation, and sustainability. PIE in particular is looking at such trends as mass customization, distributed manufacturing, and global supply chains, and analyzing the production capability opportunities that could arise from scaling up.
“The one who is manufacturing the great ideas is the one making the money,” says Professor Hardt. “So I look at it and wonder, how could you ever have an economy without manufacturing?
“Several popular startup companies with innovative products had to immediately relocate offshore to manufacture their products—not because of cost or taxes, but because we did not have the capacity or capability to do it here in the US,” he continues. “Those companies had no choice but to go offshore for their production.”
“Without manufacturing,” adds Professor Chun, “we would have service with little value. You need both together for success.”
Economics is not the only concern. Many academics have also noted a crucial link between manufacturing and innovation. PIE is interested in analyzing the relationship between innovation and production in countries with strong export performance and manufacturing sectors. They believe that those who are manufacturing a particular product are also the ones inventing new and better ways to make it.
“A lot of innovation in the US happens as a result of manufacturing,” says Professor Varanasi. “Many new ideas come from talking with engineers on the field and the folks on the shop floor. That is why it is so important for the US to continue manufacturing. If we lose it, we will lose research and ultimately innovation. Then we will no longer be a high-tech country. Manufacturing is important from every perspective—new jobs and national security, as well as maintaining our way of life.”
“The fear is that if you lose manufacturing, you lose the ability to invent,” adds Professor Sarma.
Manufacturing in the 21st Century
Of course, US manufacturing has progressed rapidly in the past 30 to 40 years, in large part due to game-changing inventions such as computers, automation, and micro manufacturing that have led to a more agile industry.
New information-sharing and automation technologies such as three-dimensional scanning and nano-scale reliability testing allow hyper efficiency and precision we could not achieve previously. The PIE project is currently studying the potential of advanced materials and new production technologies to “achieve radical increases in distribution efficiency, energy efficiency, flexibility, and overall productivity.”
In response to these advances, consumers are demanding ever-increasing speed and accuracy. Such progress has also created considerable global competition. There is no longer room for experimental approaches of the past. In order to compete in today’s marketplace, production processes require speed, accuracy, and consistency. And the workforce needs to be able to meet the demand—both the workers on the shop floor as well as the engineers behind it.
“One of the biggest changes I have seen is the way people understand the whole system of manufacturing,” says Hardt. “It is important to know how it all fits together: what parts to make, how to design them properly, how to make them the same continuously, how to deliver them to the right place, and how to change things quickly if need be. It is exciting because it is very real and fast-paced, but by the same token, it is very unforgiving if you mess up. Mass production still exists, but it is much more agile than it used to be.”
We have started to answer the question of “how?” but the question of “what?” still remains. What should the US manufacture in 2012? To answer that question, we will look to critical forthcoming data from AMP and PIE that are expected to identify advanced manufacturing as a potential option.
Professor Jung-Hoon Chun
Professor Jung-Hoon Chun, the director of MIT’s Lab for Manufacturing and Productivity, began his work with the invention of uniform metal spheres, called solder balls, used for electronics packaging. Now he works with faculty from the Department of Chemical Engineering in the Novartis-MIT Center for Continuous Manufacturing. His research focuses on the continuous downstream manufacturing processes (blending, forming, and coating) of solid pharmaceutical dosage forms. He and his interdepartmental team have developed a patent-pending continuous process to lower the cost of manufacturing pharmaceutical pills.
At the same time, Chun is also focused on solving yet another electronics manufacturing problem: semiconductor chip defects. These chips are made layer by layer, each requiring planarization in order to accommodate the next layer.
“As the critical dimension in semiconductor chips becomes smaller and smaller to the nano-scale, the need for accuracy becomes greater,” he says. “And at the same time, the materials are changing too. But the new materials used in the semiconductors are more easily scratched as they are being planarized by the chemical-mechanical polishing process. This causes defects in the chips.”
Chun is conducting fundamental research to understand how scratches are formed as the oft-used copper and low-k dielectric materials are polished for planarization. He is also designing a new process to eliminate scratch defects, with the hope of significantly decreasing the cost of production.
Professor Timothy Gutowski
While many engineers are looking for ways to increase cost efficiency in manufacturing, Professor Timothy Gutowski focuses on an oft-overlooked type of manufacturing efficiency: energy. He looks for ways to reduce emissions by taking a product’s complete lifecycle into account.
Sometimes, the most obvious way of reducing energy by remanufacturing does not work as well as people expect. For example, in studies published recently in his new book Thermodynamics and the Destruction of Resources, Gutowski found that when the entirety of a product’s lifespan is calculated in energy cost—instead of looking only at the manufacturing phase—creating a new, greener product from scratch is sometimes more energy efficient than remanufacturing an older, less-efficient one. The older one is less energy efficient overall, thus canceling out any energy advantage gained during manufacturing. This does not make him the most popular guy on the block, he says—and yet his group’s research is critical to our long-term sustainability.
Gutowski has created a systematic process for determining the total energy cost of various manufacturing practices based on thermodynamics. He measures mass, energy interaction, heat interaction, and fuels, among other things, using a lifecycle energy analysis he developed based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. As a result, he is able to get a full, comprehensive view of the energy use by looking at individual pieces of the lifecycle.
“When I first started out doing these types of analyses,” he says, “I was trying to understand the smallest pieces. But little bit by little bit, we worked our way up to the bigger picture. Of the many moving pieces in manufacturing, it turns out that there are only a few that dominate energy use and carbon emissions—and they can be used to gain insight into the challenges we face.”
Professor David E. Hardt
For Professor David E. Hardt, it is all about the perfection of every piece. Taking production processes— specifically for hot micro embossing and large-scale production of microfluidic devices—from good to great using automation and process control is the focus of his current research.
“The cost and productivity of making microfluidic devices were not issues until it became a product that could have mass distribution,” he says. “Now you have companies that want to make millions of these a year at low cost and high quality, taking it from a laboratory curiosity to a true manufacturing challenge.
“The method for creating a few prototypes is completely different from mass production—the materials are different, everything is different,” he adds.
This means looking at embossing amorphous polymers such as PMMA instead of the typical casting of PDMS or conventional injection molding. It also means looking at fundamental issues of precision machine design, and even micro-scale tooling manufacture.
In all cases, Hardt and his group are focused on modeling and control to produce a superior automated process that can identify errors and fix them automatically in real time.
“Our recent work has been on design and control of low-cost, high-quality embossing machines. We have a mini factory in our lab to do real-volume production testing, to measure quality and to determine which factors in the machines and materials will influence the process for maximum performance.”
Professor Kripa Varanasi
Most people do not give surfaces a second thought, but for Professor Varanasi, they form the basis of everything. His days working at General Electric taught him how crucial a surface can be.
“One of the areas where I saw significant challenges was interfaces,” says Varanasi. “Every phenomena happens on a surface. Whether it be energy transport or mass transport, everything happens at an interface between two materials.”
When Varanasi came to MIT, one of the first things he did was address the classic 100-year-old problem of moisture-induced efficiency losses in steam turbines. To solve it, Varanasi developed a completely new class of highly non-wetting super slippery multi-structured liquid coatings that repel water droplets that impact or condense on the surface, thus preventing moisture from forming on blades. He says that the coating can be applied using the existing coating equipment by simply modifying the processes and materials, thus opening up retrofitting opportunities at every level of the value chain.
Conversely, Varanasi’s super wetting coatings combat the opposite problem of surfaces so hot that vapor forms over them and repels any water, such as that used for cooling purposes. It’s precisely the situation that can cause such power plant disasters as the one that occurred in Fukushima, Japan in 2010. Varanasi and his group have developed new nano-engineered, multi-structured highly wetting coatings to solve this problem. At temperatures greater than 400 degrees Fahrenheit, he is able to get the water droplets to anchor to the surface.