A manufacturing renaissance

As executive director of the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute, Ben Wang has his sights set on a future of innovation in the United States

By Monica Elliott

For decades, the news for manufacturing in the United States has been bleak. So many sources have reported about manufacturing going offshore for so long that it is almost a foregone conclusion that U.S. manufacturing takes place largely outside of the U.S.

But things have been changing in the last few years. The Associated Press reported that U.S. manufacturing grew in November 2013 at the fastest pace in two and a half years. And according to White House blogger Jason Miller, surveys show that more than half of all manufacturers are or are actively considering reshoring production to the United States. Ben Wang is the executive director of the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute and the Eugene C. Gwaltney Jr. Chair in Manufacturing Systems for the university's College of Engineering. 

None of this is news to Ben Wang, executive director of the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute and the Eugene C. Gwaltney Jr. Chair in Manufacturing Systems for the university’s College of Engineering. But Wang’s interests go beyond traditional manufacturing, or manufacturing 1.0, returning to the U.S. He and his colleagues at GTMI are working toward a new kind of manufacturing rooted in innovation and systems thinking. Whether you call it advanced manufacturing or manufacturing 2.0, the bottom line is a focus on innovation to create high value-add products. The approach will require looking at the entire system instead of discrete events.

"In the past, manufacturing was really assembly or machining within four walls of a factory, but in advanced manufacturing, we have to look at manufacturing as the whole value stream from design, machining, assembly, distribution, logistics, workforce – the whole infrastructure," says Wang.

And who is more qualified to look at the whole system than industrial engineers?

"We are trained to look at everything as a system as opposed to individual components. So IEs really have an advantage and would fit in well in manufacturing 2.0."

Wang's views might seem biased when you learn he has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in industrial engineering (as well as a Ph.D. from Penn State) and serves on Georgia Tech’s Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering faculty. But even though Wang is a proponent of IEs leading the charge in advanced manufacturing, he knows such a broad initiative requires all types of engineers as well as public policy professionals.

GTMI’s mission as of its 2012 inception is to produce cutting-edge interdisciplinary research for today’s manufacturers in order to work on grand challenges.

The grand challenges are articulated by Wang in an impressive video on the GTMI website. First, he asks, how do we accelerate innovation? How can we move research results from the lab to the marketplace and create economic value? Wang says this concept is often referred to in research circles as "crossing the valley of death." The second grand challenge is ensuring that what is invented in America is made in America.

A critical component in achieving such goals is to have the government facilitate them. Fortunately for GTMI, a government initiative was already in the works to push advanced manufacturing forward.

In 2011, President Barack Obama created the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) to facilitate industry, academia and government working together to revitalize the U.S. manufacturing sector. Partly due to the work conducted at GTMI, Obama selected Georgia Tech President G.P. "Bud" Peterson to serve on the AMP steering committee.

Myriad recommendations came out of the first phase of AMP, but Wang says three major recommendations stood out: creating a friendly business climate in the U.S., including public policy, tax systems and innovation incentives; driving innovation to create commercial value or societal impact out of basic research; and developing the workforce pipeline.

In September 2013, the White House announced the second phase of AMP – AMP 2.0 – which will focus on implementing the plans laid out in the first phase of the initiative. Once again, Peterson is on the steering committee, and this time Wang was asked to serve on the operations committee.

Wang also served on the Roundtable on Strengthening U.S. Advanced Manufacturing in Clean Energy at the White House in 2012. He was one of only a few people from academia asked to participate along with representatives from various public policy groups and research centers. There were also more than 35 company reps promoting their products in fuel cells, wind energy and other clean energy sources.

But Wang believes the government’s role in the process is not to endorse energy forms but to create a good infrastructure or business climate for companies to excel in the marketplace based on what they do. GTMI’s position is that the government should examine workforce, infrastructures, transportation, the investment community and the material/supplier base.

"Whether it’s the state government, local government or the … federal government, they should really care about creating those cross-cutting enablers so that companies are willing to do the best they can," says Wang.

In March 2013, the Aspen Institute, an education and policy studies organization, released a report titled "A Manufacturing Resurgence," but Wang thinks a better title would have been "A Manufacturing Renaissance." Wang says the report is the result of a study that lays out two scenarios for U.S. manufacturing. In the baseline scenario, the country will continue the status quo of the last two to three decades. The second scenario is prompt facilitation of a manufacturing renaissance.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally (right) was GTMI’s first distinguished lecturer on Oct. 1, 2013. He described how Ford changed its culture to ignite a turnaround in the last few years. Mulally is joined by Georgia Tech Executive Vice President for Research Stephen Cross (from left), Wang, mechanical engineering professor Bert Bras and Vice President for Development Barrett Carson."Amazingly, if we continue the baselines, if we look at the imports and exports, the trade deficit will become about a trillion dollars a year," Wang asserts. "A trillion dollars is a lot of money. But if we begin to do something now and act decisively, the renaissance scenario in about 10 or 12 years, we’ll begin to see that exports will exceed imports, meaning we have a trade balance. So we close a gap of a trillion dollars a year."

GTMI’s goals are right in line with these government initiatives, and the institute is focused on working with companies like Boeing, Caterpillar and Siemens on high-level research projects in advanced manufacturing.

The researchers work on projects in various areas, including biotechnology, additive manufacturing (3-D printing) and nanomaterials science, an area in which Wang is widely considered a pioneer.

One project GTMI is working on for U.S. Veterans Affairs is called SOCAT, which stands for socket optimized for comfort with advanced technology. According to the research summary, researchers are improving amputees’ comfort, functionality, gait and mobility by leveraging innovative materials, advanced manufacturing and printed electronics to build a better integrated prosthetic socket system.

Wang’s colleague and fellow industrial and systems engineering professor Chuck Zhang is leading SOCAT, among other printed electronics projects.

"For AMP or advanced manufacturing to work, you need to develop new technologies for manufacturing," says Zhang. "[It’s] not only the software operations research, but also the hardware. We call it the real manufacturing, like the materials, the machines, [et cetera]. Georgia Tech in general is doing very well."

Wang came on board at Georgia Tech in January 2012 after spending nearly 20 years at Florida State University building the school’s industrial engineering master’s and doctoral degree programs from the ground up. He also led the development of the High Performance Materials Institute and the Center of Excellence in Advanced Materials for the state of Florida.

He was so contented at FSU that he could only be lured away to Tech by the potential for creating the go-to place for advanced manufacturing and high value-added innovation.

"Our aspiration at GTMI is [to be] the leader in advanced manufacturing globally," Wang says. "And I think the ultimate goal is to make sure that we have substantial impact to create wealth, to elevate the standard of living of the U.S. citizens, to drive innovation and to create really good high-paying jobs, especially middle-class jobs. ... It is a lofty goal, but it is not unreachable."

Monica Elliott is the director of communications for the Institute of Industrial Engineers.