WASHINGTON – In case you missed it, below is a special report from U.S. News & World Report on U.S. Senator Chris Coons’ (D-Del.) Manufacturing Universities Act of 2015 and how it will help schools strengthen their engineering programs to meet the growing demands of 21st century manufacturing.

Lawmakers: Manufacturing Universities Will Help Boost U.S. Competitiveness

By Amy Golod

Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) says when he visited Dogfish Brewery's bottling plant in his state last year, he was struck by the quiet and clean environment where eight members of a 24-person team worked a shift that required the ability to program computers, troubleshoot issues and monitor quality control. This is not the setting some of today's parents might envision, however, when they think of a manufacturer. 

They may recall the Shotz Brewery bottling factory from "Laverne & Shirley," the television show that debuted more than 30 years ago, and which Coons describes as noisy with hundreds of people performing menial and manual tasks, happiest when they could clock out for the day. 

As the father of three teenagers, Coons says he is well-aware of parents' conversations about their children's college decisions, tuition costs and professional paths. If parents have not visited a modern manufacturing plant and instead remember stories from a previous generation, they might view the sector negatively, and after sacrificing to send their children to college, they are concerned that it lacks promising employment options, he says. 

These parents "have an impression of manufacturing as dangerous, dirty and, frankly, not on the up. They view manufacturing as not having a positive future in our country," he says. "They have an outdated view of manufacturing."

In addition, if engineers share these perspectives, and believe the field, "doesn't have a bright future, they're not going into careers in manufacturing, even though it's incredibly satisfying and rewarding and interesting," Coons says. 

"The way we're going to continue to grow and meet our manufacturing sector needs is by bringing the best and brightest engineers into solving our problems." Changing the perception of manufacturing among guidance counselors, professors and parents is part of his agenda, he adds. Members of the National Association of Manufacturers and those at the Commerce Department who work on attracting qualified applicants to open manufacturing positions "will agree that an outdated image of manufacturing is one of the major recruitment challenges they have in getting talented folks to be willing to go into it as a field," Coons says.

This spring, Coons and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) re-launched the Manufacturing Jobs for America campaign, which aims to build bipartisan support around legislation that helps U.S. manufacturing expand and create jobs. During last year's session of Congress, eight of 36 introduced pieces of legislation related to the campaign's goals were passed into law and focused on angles such as boosting American competitiveness and promoting job training and community college programs.

As part of this campaign, the Manufacturing Universities Act of 2015 was introduced, co-sponsored by Coons, Baldwin and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). Identical legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), with bipartisan support among seven additional co-sponsors. 

The bill would establish a program within the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to designate 25 schools as manufacturing universities. These schools, which would apply for this designation, would receive $5 million annually for four years to achieve specified, targeted objectives, including focusing engineering programs on manufacturing, creating university-industry manufacturing partnerships and increasing training opportunities, such as through for-credit internships and cooperative education. Promoting manufacturing entrepreneurship and local and regional economic growth would be other goals. The director of NIST would run the program in coordination with other individuals such as the secretaries of Defense and Energy and the director of the National Science Foundation.

The Manufacturing Universities Act has been endorsed by schools such as the University of Delaware, Clemson University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Wisconsin, and by Dow Chemical Company, DuPont and Siemens.

"In the debate and conversation around Manufacturing Jobs for America in the last Congress, we had great engagement and partnerships around the community college piece and the vo-tech piece but have really done very little around universities," Coons says. 

The Manufacturing Universities Act speaks to two key needs, Coons says: changing the perception of manufacturing among today's college and graduate students, and addressing the needs of American manufacturers so that they can be globally competitive. 

There are thousands of unfilled manufacturing jobs, Coons notes. Among the manufacturers he has visited in his state over the past three years, Coons says they tell him that they could expand at a faster rate with "more talent available." 

"Today's highly-skilled positions in advanced manufacturing … require a solid knowledge base in the STEM disciplines," says Eric Spiegel, president and chief executive officer of Siemens USA and a member of the White House Advanced Manufacturing Partnership 2.0 Steering Committee, via email. "The bipartisan 'Manufacturing Universities Act' will bring together industry and academia to help students get the training they need to operate America's modern factories. At Siemens, we've seen the value of working closely with educational institutions to help shape curriculum, and this bill complements other efforts on Capitol Hill to create a pipeline of trained workers for the future."

In June 2011, President Barack Obama launched the partnership, which would coalesce industry, universities and the federal government to invest in technologies that would yield manufacturing jobs and increase American global competitiveness. The AMP Steering Committee provided recommendations adopted by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which presented them in its July 2012 "Report to the President on Capturing Domestic Competitive Advantage in Advanced Manufacturing." 

As part of its recommendations, the committee talked about how to engage universities in manufacturing practices. The report was a source when forming the concept of manufacturing universities, says Sean Coit, Coons' communications director. 

The Manufacturing Universities Act is based in part on conversations between Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and Coons' staff, in addition to ideas put forth by Atkinson and Stephen Ezell in the January 2013 Brookings Institution paper, "Cut to Invest: Support the Designation of 20 'U.S. Manufacturing Universities,'" Coit says. 

Atkinson says the foundation had researched Germany's Fraunhofer system, which consists of industry-led institutes based on partnerships with universities and government. These institutes concentrate on improving or maturing a particular technology. Companies from a specific sector band together, and provide, along with government, funding to a university that hosts the institute and develops the science and the research. This German system was a model for the American National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, he says.

On March 9, 2012, the Obama administration called for up to 15 institutes to form the network. Each institute would have a specific technology focus to address manufacturing industry challenges and would benefit from collaboration among business, universities and community colleges and local, state and federal government. In July 2013, President Obama called upon Congress to establish up to 45 such institutes over the next 10 years, and his fiscal year 2016 budget allocates resources to bring the number of manufacturing innovation institutes to 16 by the end of next year. 

"We felt that there was a need for something earlier in the innovation stage," Atkinson explains, and says manufacturing universities would be a way to address this. 

"If the manufacturing universities do the teaching and research in engineering … then that would be an incredible pipeline of talent, feeding into manufacturing innovation institutes, into our private sector," observes Sridhar Kota, the Herrick Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. Kota was the assistant director for advanced manufacturing in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2009-2012.

"Engineering is about synthesis, creativity, and science is about analysis and discovery," Kota says. He believes that the United States has lost that distinction, and, as a result, academic engineers do more analysis than creation.

The U.S. continues to be strong in science and basic research but is not capitalizing on it, he says. Kota refers to an "innovation gap" where, for example, a chemical at the test- tube level requires investment to determine if it is viable for industry. The U.S. needs to turn "the promising idea into the practical product," he says.

"One of the reasons why we proposed [manufacturing universities] is you look at why other countries are doing better than we are on advanced manufacturing and, this is a broad generalization, but we're a really good science country. That's our strength. We do science quite well, and we've translated it to new high-tech start-ups," Atkinson says. 

"The Germans, the Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese – they're better engineering cultures than we are. They are really strong on engineering and, in the new global economy, you've got to be good at both of those things." 

There are some universities and colleges that have already focused on aligning engineering curricula with industry practices and needs, and in formulating the Manufacturing Universities Act, Coons says he and his staff started looking at models, such as Georgia Tech, for university engagement. 

On the Atlanta-based campus is the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute. Its executive director, Ben Wang, describes it as "comprehensive, and dynamic, and still evolving," and says he reports directly to the university leadership and works to develop and execute a campus-wide innovation strategy. 

"We reach out to people in science, to design, to urban planning, to public policy and also even economic development, so manufacturing here is really a comprehensive effort," Wang says. Georgia Tech students are incredibly bright, he says, but the university wants them to be "innovation savvy" as well, to understand the potential economic, commercial and societal impacts of their coursework and research. The institute offers capstone projects, cooperative educational opportunities, internships, a certificate program and on-campus industry talks.

"Typically, what's happening in the academic world is the professors, students will identify an idea or come up with an idea and then do research, and then finally it's done and then try to find a company to see if the company is interested. In my view, it's too late." What distinguishes the institute's model of collaboration is its engagement with companies early on in the research process so that together they start to build a business case as the technology develops, Wang says.

When Christopher Oberste, a second-year Ph.D. student in materials science and engineering at Georgia Tech and a graduate research assistant at the institute, presented his thesis idea to Wang, his adviser, they established how best to approach the research and brought an industry partner on board to help with some of its development. Oberste focuses on creating a new type of 3-D printing to produce composites that are stronger and lighter than those made by traditional methods for high-performance applications.

Oberste says the Boeing 787, for example, has a carbon fiber composite fuselage and wings where the composite is a mixture of reinforcing carbon fiber fabric and a polymer, or resin, that yields a material that is stronger and stiffer than its components. Composites have higher ratios of strength to weight and stiffness to weight than aluminum or steel so they are attractive to industry because decreased weights reduce fuel usage and costs, he explains.

As an Auburn University undergraduate, Oberste participated in a cooperative education program for three semesters over a two-year period. With each semester that he worked full time at GKN Aerospace in Alabama, he says he built on his academic coursework from his alternating semesters as a student. The experience, he says, "colored how I approached my thesis topic and why I decided to do composites instead of something else."

"Even if you don't end up going into manufacturing as a manufacturing engineer," Oberste explains, "the ability to understand how things are made and the processes that go into how you get from a raw material to a final part is extremely valuable for an engineer."

Another higher education institution that engages industry in its engineering programs is Olin College of Engineering, which Atkinson cites as an additional model for manufacturing universities. A distinguishing feature of the college, located outside of Boston, is a constantly evolving curriculum that does not become rooted in tradition, says Richard Miller, its president.

"Engineering is not a body of knowledge, so a transcript of grades in thermodynamics and circuit design does not make you an engineer any more than a transcript in anatomy, physiology and biology doesn't make you a surgeon. You have to pick up a scalpel at some point. So what engineering is is a process," Miller explains.

"Precious little of the time students spend studying engineering in universities has anything to do with that process. So we're really good at producing applied scientists, not so good at producing engineers." 

Olin students study scientific and math principles, but they also learn how to be innovative and creative and how to find solutions to clients' needs, Miller says.

Olin students work on about 20-25 design projects during their four college years, culminating in a final capstone project that helps companies solve real problems. Companies approach the school with a project and pay a $55,000 sponsorship fee, which is used to run the program, referred to as the Senior Capstone Program in Engineering (SCOPE). Teams of five or so students meet with a company liaison at the beginning of the school year to establish a project plan and they communicate weekly. 

"They learn to be an engineer rather than learning about engineering," Miller says.

Sally Phelps, director of post-graduate planning at Olin, reports that sixth months after graduation, 93 percent of the classes of 2012, 2013 and 2014 was employed or attending graduate school and nine out ten of Olin alums are in engineering-related jobs or graduate programs. Olin's current enrollment is 343, with about half men and half women. For comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent figures, based on the 2012 American Community Survey, indicate that of the employed civilians aged 25-64 with a bachelor's degree or higher level of education, 14.2 percent with a bachelor's degree in engineering are women.

Five graduates from the class of 2015 were hired by their SCOPE sponsor company, and five classmates joined start-ups founded by Olin alums or current students, Phelps says.

Start-ups showcase an angle of manufacturing that contrasts to the outdated image of factory work. Students from the University of Wisconsin—Madison created a technology to bring on-demand color to desktop 3-D printing. They founded Spectrom and produced full-color parts with their technology in January at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The Manufacturing Universities Act would impact the university in two places in particular, Ian Robertson, dean of the university's College of Engineering, says: current research related to advanced manufacturing and expansion of undergraduate and graduate education and training opportunities. 

The legislation would influence "how we interact with industry and translate our research experiences to them. … An important activity for university research is for us to make that translation to product, that translation to industry," Robertson says. "We're going to have to provide a new workforce with different skills if we are to be competitive in advanced manufacturing areas."

Cédric Kovacs-Johnson, co-founder of Spectrom, graduated in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, and emphasizes the importance for students to work on real problems. He says that conducting physical experiments in a summer lab course "really drove a lot of the concepts home. 

In some of his chemical engineering classes, he says professors started to talk about economics and business. At the end of one course, he and his classmates designed systems, which they had studied during the semester, and then they analyzed the economics behind the projects before realizing some of them might not make business sense.

Kovacs-Johnson notes that it was a valuable lesson in that "just because you can [build it], doesn't mean you should, and I think bringing industry into the classroom would probably enforce more of those ideas."