By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON Feb 14 A former furniture warehouse
in a struggling Rust Belt city has emerged as a national model
for innovation after President Barack Obama highlighted it in
his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.
Obama now aims to convince Congress to spend $1 billion to
replicate the model nationwide. But it will be a tough sell to
Republicans, who oppose government spending on industry and
argue private capital will respond if there is real demand.
Yet even before the facility is fully up and running, local
business leaders say Youngstown, Ohio's National Additive
Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) is already spurring
interest in a promising new technology known as "3D printing"
that could bring new manufacturing jobs to the region.
They say the federal government is bringing together
researchers and businesses that could make the region a hotbed
of cutting-edge manufacturing.
"This is absolutely a net positive for the Youngstown area,"
said Eric Planey, a vice president with the Youngstown Chamber
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing creates
solid objects from a digital model by laying down successive
thin layers of material, rather than the traditional
"subtractive" approach, in which objects are created by cutting
them out of a solid chunk of metal or plastic.
The process has been used to build prototypes for 25 years,
but now is making its way into regular production. Companies
such as General Electric Co plan to use 3D printing to
build lightweight aircraft parts, while dentists use it to
create crowns in the space of an hour rather than two weeks.
The Obama administration has been promoting the idea of a
manufacturing revival as labor-saving technology, rising costs
overseas and cheap energy at home have prompted some
manufacturers to bring factory jobs back from overseas.
Economists say the United States is long past the days when
steel mills, auto plants and machine jobs boosted millions of
unskilled Americans into the middle class. Manufacturing now
represents 12 percent of the U.S. work force, down from 20
percent in 1979.
Youngstown has seen some manufacturing jobs return since its
giant steel mills shut down in the 1970s, but increased
automation means that they employ fewer people than they would
have several decades ago.
A new pipe factory that would have needed 1,000 workers 25
years ago now employs 350, Planey said, while a General Motors
assembly plant that employs 5,000 produces as many cars
as it did when it employed 14,000 people.
Obama administration officials say manufacturing might not
ever employ as many people as it once did, but the sector has
broader benefits to the economy because it spurs research and
development and boosts exports.
Taking a page from similar efforts in Germany, the
administration last year picked Youngstown as the site of an
"innovation institute" that would spread new manufacturing ideas
among a wide range of businesses.
"You are using a facility as essentially like a teaching
hospital," Gene Sperling, the director of the White House
National Economic Council, said on a conference call on
Wednesday. "When there are developments in technology and
research, you have the capacity to share them with smaller
GOVERNMENT, BUSINESS, UNIVERSITIES
Government agencies such as the Department of Defense, the
Department of Energy, NASA and the National Science Foundation
put up $30 million for the effort, matched by $40 million from
businesses such as Northrop Grumman Corp and
universities including Carnegie Mellon.
In his State of the Union speech, Obama asked Congress to
spend $1 billion to set up 14 more innovation centers across the
nation. He said he would set up three facilities on his own,
using existing funds, if lawmakers do not act.
Republicans, who have fought Obama's stimulus for green
technology, are unlikely to soften their stance on spending.
"Washington has a spending problem that threatens the
prosperity of every child, every family, and every small
business in America," House of Representatives Speaker John
Boehner, who ran an Ohio manufacturing firm before entering
When the Youngstown center is fully up and running in the
next several weeks, the 11,000 manufacturers in the region will
get a chance to learn how 3D printing works and determine
whether they want to invest in it themselves, said NAMII
president Ralph Resnick.
Local workers also could learn how to operate the new
equipment, and experts could ensure that the final product will
meet existing quality standards.
The idea is to create enough of a body of expertise around
the technology to turn the region into a hotbed of additive
manufacturing, Resnick said.
"What we're looking to work on is pervasive issues," ones
that affect many manufacturers, he said. "If we solve it, it's
all good for the community in general."
Like other forms of "high tech" manufacturing, additive
manufacturing doesn't have much use for low-skilled workers
doing repetitive tasks on an assembly line.
But if it catches on, it could create more demand for
industrial designers, inventory managers and other skilled
workers, said Todd Grimm, an industry consultant based in
Kentucky. It also could spur a new wave of business startups as
the barriers to entry are much lower than they are in
traditional manufacturing, he said.
"The economy will benefit. To what extent? Will it even be
measurable? Who knows - that's for somebody with a crystal
ball," he said.