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When North Carolina lost most of its furniture and textiles production to Mexico and Asia, it looked as though all our manufacturing was dying. Like a tsunami, factory closures sent tidal waves across a vast supply chain of producers. As the disaster deepened, many envisioned a future without manufacturing. They predicted that cleaner, greener and safer service sector jobs would emerge to dominate the North Carolina economy.
During the 1980s and ’90s, North Carolina lost not only its factories, but also its confidence in manufacturing.
“Manufacturing became a dirty word,” remarks Dr. John Ziegert, heading up the UNC Charlotte initiative for advanced manufacturing. “It was dumb, dark, dirty and disappearing.”
It took a while before the state put the loss of its furniture industry in perspective. Wooden case goods were the economic equivalent of silk-screened tee shirts. This was an industry ripe for export and vulnerable to duplication by low-wage, low-technology operations across the pond.
Despite a generalized loss of faith in manufacturing, North Carolina remains the most productive manufacturing state in the Southeast and third in the nation. Over 400,000 North Carolinians work in the state’s 9,300 manufacturing companies, with Mecklenburg County the state’s manufacturing leader. Even with the Great Recession, North Carolina’s manufacturing output has grown over the last decade.
Looking at the larger picture, the United States today produces 21 percent of the world’s manufactured goods and manufacturing employs one in six American workers. That leaves plenty of room for improvement. During the 1970s, approximately 25 percent of American workers were employed in manufacturing.
Globalization experts are coming to the understanding that manufacturing plays a vital and essential role in our economy. “We can’t have a vibrant economy without a world-class manufacturing sector,” says Ziegert. “Without it, money only leaves the country.”
Due in large part to the vision of then-Chancellor Jim Woodward, UNC Charlotte has never lost its emphasis on manufacturing.
“During the past two decades when most universities were running away from manufacturing, UNC Charlotte identified advanced manufacturing as something we’d be good at,” asserts Ziegert, a professor of mechanical engineering and engineering science at UNC Charlotte. “The school continued to build its strength in manufacturing when others like Purdue and the University of Illinois were downsizing and letting professors working in manufacturing retire without replacement.”
Ziegert’s area of expertise is not just mechanical engineering, but advanced manufacturing. This is the type of manufacturing that business leaders do not want to export. It holds the key to manufacturing’s long awaited American Renaissance, a revival that could even extend to the now-crippled furniture industry. With all the problems of high transportation costs, poor quality and long lead times associated with furniture produced overseas, it may be time to think about “advanced” manufacturing of furniture in North Carolina.
What is “Advanced Manufacturing”?
”Advanced manufacturing” has been defined in numerous ways. In fact, there have been entire government studies devoted to developing the concept, part of which involves defining the concept.
In the November 2012 issue of Industry Week, Editor-in-Chief Patricia Panchak tackled advanced manufacturing’s untidy definition:
• Is advanced manufacturing just “newer” manufacturing, like aerospace compared to auto production?
• Are its products designed with CAD, CAE, CAM, modeled by high performance computing, simulation and analysis, and produced by advanced robotics, additive manufacturing and other intelligent systems?
• Should leadership systems like lean management, lean production, Six Sigma, supply chain integration, and advanced planning and scheduling be part of the definition?
• Does advanced manufacturing have to be born in university science and engineering departments and then transferred into manufactured products?
These are not just academic concerns, argues Panchak. “How we define advanced manufacturing determines the metrics we’ll use to evaluate success and shapes public policy and business strategy,” she stresses.
Panchak found an acceptable definition in the June 2011 Ensuring American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST): “Advanced manufacturing…involves both new ways to manufacture existing products and the manufacture of new products emerging from new advanced technologies.”
To some extent, the definition is a moving target. Ziegert has his own take on the subject: “Advanced manufacturing is that segment of manufacturing where you gain a competitive advantage by the application of specialized knowledge and technology as opposed to low labor rates.”
Universal in any definition is a dynamic element. “What is considered advanced manufacturing today may be commonplace in 20 years,” says Ziegert. The smartphone is an all-too-obvious example. While it is undeniably high-tech, assembling it is not.”
Examples of advanced manufacturing range from the microscopic to the majestic. Ziegert points out one that is large and dramatic: aircraft manufacturing. Thirty years ago airplanes were made of sheet metal and metal component parts were folded and riveted together.
In work pioneered by Dr. Scott Smith of UNC Charlotte, that has all changed. Smith and others learned how to take a solid piece of aluminum and machine it into complex shapes with sheet metal thickness. That research, combined with high speed milling techniques that Smith also helped to develop, led to what is referred to today as monolithic construction.
“As a result,” Ziegert says, “the structural components of virtually all United States military aircraft are no longer built by folding sheet metal.” The technique has revolutionized aircraft construction and Boeing has estimated that implementing it has saved as much as $500 million on the F-18 program alone.
As a result of PCAST report in 2011, President Obama appointed Mike Molnar, a manufacturing executive from Cummins, chief manufacturing officer of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and director of the interagency National Program Office for Advanced Manufacturing whose mission it is to foster industry-led partnerships and to form a “whole of government” approach to strengthen competitiveness and innovation in U.S. manufacturing.
Molnar is a self-described “manufacturing guy from industry” and is seen by Fred Wetzel, executive vice president for the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing (NACFAM), as an effective “inside guy.”
In July 2012, Molnar’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) announced a $1 billion proposal to create 15 public/private manufacturing innovation institutes around the country. The Charlotte Research Institute at UNC Charlotte is bidding to become one of the centers.
Innovation Institute at UNC Charlotte
The job of shepherding UNC Charlotte’s application for an Innovation Institute was a star attraction in John Ziegert’s move to the University two years ago. Currently in the University’s William States Lee College of Engineering and a researcher in the Center for Precision Metrology, his background is steeped in smart manufacturing.
Before Charlotte, the University of Rhode Island Ph.D. was at Clemson University as Timken Chair in Automotive Design for the International Center for Automotive Research. Prior to Clemson, Ziegert spent 17 years at the University of Florida, progressing from assistant professor to the Newton C. Ebaugh Chair and director of the Machine Tool Research Center.
The Carolinas Manufacturing Innovation Institute (CM2I) that Ziegert envisions will concentrate on large-scale, high-precision manufacturing.
“The United States exports far more than we import in aircraft, industrial engines, excavators and railway and mining equipment,” he says. And with the experts Ziegert intends to bring to CM2I, he is determined to keep that trade imbalance tilted in favor of the U.S.A.
“A key to success in high-precision manufacturing is integrative precision manufacturing,” Ziegert says. “One result of this type of production is a rapid and automated correction of production errors before they spread through the system. That’s a vast improvement over what’s been cynically called ‘inspecting quality into manufactured goods.’”
Ziegert was attracted to UNC Charlotte for a rather straightforward reason. “This department has the largest, strongest, most respected and best equipped advanced manufacturing group in academia in the United States,” he says unequivocally.
That assessment is not hyperbole. The International Academy for Production Engineering (CIRP, French) is the world’s leading professional organization in production engineering research. It is at the forefront of design, optimization, control and management of industrial processes, machines and systems.
Researchers are invited to join CIRP and each industrialized country is limited to 20 Fellow members. In the delegation from the United States, five of the Fellows are from UNC Charlotte.
“M.I.T. has two members. No other U.S. university has more than one member. That was an easy sell to get me here,” says Ziegert, nodding.
The five CIRP Fellows from UNC Charlotte are Scott Smith, Robert Hocken, Chris Evans, Gert Goch, and Matt Davies. All are Ph.D. professors in the department of mechanical engineering and engineering sciences.
Dave Barton, co-founder of BlueSwarf, agrees wholeheartedly with Ziegert’s assessment, and, he’s willing to take bets on UNC Charlotte’s chances of success with funding for CM2I. Barton’s company, a developer of software for the machining industry, is now located at Penn State University’s Innovation Park, but would move to UNC Charlotte in that event.
“Chances are good that UNC Charlotte will get one of the 15 spots,” says Barton. “UNC Charlotte is one of the primary machining facilities in the world. In manufacturing research and machining, Georgia Tech and MIT pale in comparison to UNC Charlotte.”
What It Will Take…
NACFAM’s Wentzel is skeptical about funding the new Institutes: “Nothing will happen until the money is available.” Acknowledging that that depends on the administration and Congress getting together on spending, he says in light of recent history, “I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
Ziegert is more optimistic. Based on conversations with people in the government’s National Program Office for Advanced Manufacturing, he feels confident that there will be calls for proposals in the spring with awards for the first institutes by the end of fiscal year 2014.
If successful, CM2I will be an independent, not-for-profit research and training institute run by a board of directors composed largely of representatives of its member companies. The new institute would rely on NNMI dollars only for its start-up phase. Once it matures and attracts industrial partners, it will survive on dues, fee-for-service activities, competitive federal research contracts and license fees.
One part of CM2I involves a partnership with area community colleges such as Central Piedmont. Ziegert says their cooperation is necessary in the vital area of work force development. He is looking to train entry level shop-floor machine operators, technicians and mid-career engineers for positions in digital manufacturing and manufacturing analytics.
To get there, he has fashioned a training laundry list that includes apprenticeships, short courses, flexible degree programs, internships and certificate programs.
There is another reason Ziegert purposefully chose to come to Charlotte: He is also point man for the partnership between the University and Siemens Energy centered on creating the Siemens Large Manufacturing Solutions Laboratory, a place where Siemens engineers and UNC Charlotte grad students can engage in short-range applied research to make Siemens more profitable and competitive.
Ziegert is still looking for a permanent home for the lab, but that hasn’t stopped Siemens engineer Michael Jones and his student researchers from tackling some practical manufacturing-related problems.
Jones is generator manufacturing development manager for Siemens Energy in Charlotte. He winnowed dozens of suggestions from other Siemens engineers into five practical student-centered problems. “What better way to educate students than to investigate real life projects?” says Jones. “It is a perfect setup. What an opportunity for UNC Charlotte students!”
Since May 2012, the students, working with UNC Charlotte faculty and Siemens engineers, have tested high-strength alloys for gas turbine parts, developed new methods to accurately measure a round spinning shaft, compared the effectiveness of side-entry milling and broaching, automated the measurement of large, high volume valves, and tried to solve vibration problems associated with deep hole drilling. All are practical problems that Siemens would like solved.
“This is neither fundamental research nor is it research that will revolutionize the way gas turbines or electrical generators are manufactured,” says Ziegert. “But the challenge is to see beyond the immediate practical problem to what is fundamental beneath it; to invent something new that will not only solve this problem, but will also solve related problems or help prevent them altogether.”
Ziegert’s hopes for the success of the Siemens lab and Innovation Institute are intimately related to his hopes for reinvigorating the manufacturing sector of the American economy. His field of advanced manufacturing is one of the reasons companies are “reshoring”—returning manufacturing operations from Asia to the United States.
Economic factors such as transportation expenses across the Pacific, custom duties, communications difficulties, product quality, labor unrest and rising wages are also energizing the trend. A 2012 M.I.T. survey of 108 American firms with Asian production found that 14 percent have already brought some manufacturing home and another 33 percent are actively considering it.
“The experiment of going to China didn’t work out for many companies,” confirms Ziegert. Perhaps experiments in the labs at UNC Charlotte coupled with an American work force more willing to work for lower wages will help reshore—and restore—the American economy.