The federal government is presently considering approaches to bolster its role in supporting innovations in future manufacturing industries within the U.S. This month, Mark Tuominen, Director of the National Nanomanufacturing Network (NNN), along with industry colleagues, provided expert testimony to the House Science and Technology Committee at a hearing on the role of the federal government in supporting manufacturing innovation in the U.S.. Tuominen spoke about the impact of present programs and methods, as well as significant opportunities for the federal government to enhance the transition of nanotechnology research and development to commercialization of next generation consumer products. The purpose of the testimony was to provide a boost for research and development in nanomanufacturing and further foster university-industry interactions to share information and transition technological advances.
In his testimony to Congress, Tuominen cited the U.S. investment in nanotechnology through the National Nanotechnology Initiative resulting in enormous advancements in the ability to make, control, and utilize nanomaterials whose characteristic features are 1-100 nanometers. The last ten years in nanotechnology has been a period of dramatic discovery and exploration. Brilliant scientists and engineers from interdisciplinary teams have created proof-of-concept demonstrations with high performance nanoscale materials and devices. These results are now beginning to impact just about every commercial product sector, including electronics, materials, health, transportation, consumer care products, and energy. However, making transition from proof-of-concept demonstration, to prototype, to manufacturing pilot, to full-scale manufacturing is not trivial. This is especially true in the case of an emergent field like nanotechnology, where, in most cases, we cannot simply adapt old designs of production tools for these new methods. Manufacturing brings to bear a new range of issues: process development and modeling, scale-up, metrology, process control, tooling, workforce, safety, and supply chain. Ultimately, these issues have to be addressed because, without manufacturing, there are no products. Perhaps more than any other previous activity, nanomanufacturing requires close cooperative efforts between industry, academia, and government.
Additionally, Tuominen provided numerous examples to the committee of nanotechnology breakthroughs that have provided new, disruptive process technologies, rather than evolutionary progress of existing processes, tools, and infrastructure. As such, his address emphasized the need for re-evaluating, and in some cases creating, industry roadmaps in order to understand where gaps in the value chain exist, such as the lack of availability of suitable production scale tools, feedstock suppliers and trained workforce, that hinder commercial implementation. Ultimately, significant economic and societal benefits will be reaped from the anticipated nano-enabled products, and nanomanufacturing represents both a critical challenge and a significant opportunity.
In his testimony, Tuominen further addressed a need to embrace a strategic long view to advance manufacturing science and engineering. The fast progress we observe in nanomanufacturing R&D serves as an important reminder. It is a reminder that we must continue to innovate in manufacturing, that manufacturing holds many yet unsolved challenges, that manufacturing is an area that needs continual research, and that we must train and sustain a workforce driven to continue advancing our national capabilities in manufacturing. This can only be accomplished effectively with strong public-private partnerships with equally vested industry, academic, and government stakeholders. To complement the recent strides in fundamental research, pre-competitive joint-development projects are needed to take promising nanomanufacturing processes to scalable manufacturing. If well managed and adequately supported, manufacturing prototype and pilot projects will create critical knowledge to help enable the costly jump to full-scale manufacturing. Facilitating this will translate into numerous societal benefits including jobs, economic security, intellectual progress, and sustainability.
In his address, Tuominen responded to a series of questions posed by the committee as to the effectiveness and sufficiency of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) investment in manufacturing innovations through nanomanufacturing; what gaps in nanomanufacturing R&D presently exist; the role industry plays in shaping the federal governments’ R&D programs in nanomanufacturing, and whether these are responsive to the needs of industry stakeholders; the effectiveness of technology transition to industry of federally funded nanotechnology R&D; and the need for better coordination and prioritization of federally funded nanomanufacturing R&D.
The President’s Council of Advisor’s on Science and Technology (PCAST) has recently recommended that federal government agencies should include a greater emphasis on manufacturing and commercialization while maintaining or expanding the level of basic research funding in nanotechnology. Specifically, over the next five years, the Federal Government should double the funding devoted to nanomanufacturing. In addition, the Federal Government should launch at least five government-industry-university partnerships, using the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative as a model. The Federal Government should also support at least five Signature Initiatives over the next two to three years, with each Signature Initiative funded at levels adequate to achieve its stated goals, presumably between $20 million and $40 million annually.