Despite all of the questions surrounding the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute—despite all of the lingering uncertainties about the future of NNMI and the anxious anticipation with which the industry is watching its first round projects get underway—no one at the NAMII headquarters in Youngstown, Ohio, seems the least bit worried.
That’s because NAMII has a powerful ally fighting in its corner: Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH).
Over the past decade, Congressman Ryan has fought to unite the 3.9 million member workforce and 32,000 manufacturers stretched across the Ohio-Penn.-W. Va. corridor to help revive the region from its post-steel decay.
As a result, Youngstown has been transformed from a piece of the post-industrial rust belt to the heart of a new, thriving tech belt. To him, NAMII is just icing on the cake.
Here, Ryan sits down with IndustryWeek to discuss the rise of Youngstown and what it means for the future of NAMII and the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI)
When the White House announced the NAMII proposal back in March, 2012, it put you in competition with every 3-D printing center and think tank in the country—and you beat them. So what does Youngstown have that MIT doesn’t?
First off, it’s important to understand that this wasn’t a fluke. This has been 10 years in the making just to get Youngstown in line to be able to play on this level.
It really started to shape up after I got into Congress and I traveled to China and India. When I was there, I really started to get the sense that Youngstown was no longer competing against Akron, Ohio, or Akron wasn’t competing against Pittsburgh or Pittsburgh wasn’t competing against Cleveland—this whole region was really competing with Beijing and Shanghai and Mumbai.
It was really clear that we needed to figure out how to connect—at a local level—all of the magnificent institutions and businesses and organizations we have here. Not just even in northeast Ohio, but go all the way over the Pittsburgh and beyond.
It would be the equivalent of the All-Star game—we have 15 of the best players in America and they’re playing with one of the best coaches in the world and we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but it’s probably going to be very special.
How does NAMII fit into this?
I guess the real point is that when the NAMII proposal came from the White House, we already had the team in place to make a run at it. And that’s how we beat out Georgia Tech and MIT and Ohio State University.
Really, when you sit there and look at a proposal that has all of these major institutions that are doing such great work, all collaborating, of course the federal government is going to want to support it. Because if we’re going to have this huge transformational institute in additive manufacturing and we already have these public/private partners working together, obviously that’s where they’re going to place their bet.
It happens to be in downtown Youngstown in the heart of the tech belt.
How will the tech belt help NAMII succeed?
I think if you’re trying to develop a new technology or a new product or project, and you’re not sure what element of it is going to be a blockbuster and so on, as you’re going through that process, being able to draw on the different assets that is contained in these institutions and being very nimble moving forward is essential to economic development in the 21st century.
We talk a lot about collaboration and there are books all about collaboration, but there is a magic there that when you have all of these different assets in the institutions. It makes your opportunities so much broader and the ones that you take advantage of. Because it is never the one you think it may be. You never know where these things will go. That’s why you call it innovation.
But if you have all of these assets that you can draw on, the intellectual capabilities and the talent pool is all included in this collaboration, then you have a heck of a good shot to make something great happen.
Politically speaking, right now, the NAMII project is still just an idea. It’s a theory. And for it to work , there’s going to be some real examples to point at and say look, this is not a theory anymore this has helped turn around Youngstown, Ohio.
That’s always been the upside of Youngstown—our brand. Everyone knows Youngstown. Right wrong, good, bad; they know it. They know the name and they know what we’ve been through.
And that’s why President Obama gave us the shout out in the State of the Union. I think he was saying, look, look, look at what’s happening. This is not a whitepaper coming out of Brookings. This is an old warehouse building in a downtown of an iconic American city that has had some very difficult times.
What is NAMII doing for Youngstown?
There has been a fire burning in Youngstown for about five years now. NAMII is gasoline thrown on that fire.
What it is already doing is changing people’s mentality about manufacturing—it’s showing them that manufacturing isn’t this dirty old job that nobody wants anymore. They are seeing the momentum behind the companies like [NAMII member] M-7 and they see the pictures and the videos from the news about how clean it is and how you can eat off the floor in some of these 3-D printing factories.
And eventually, I expect to see companies move into the region to access the innovation that’s happening and be a real hands-on partner. I think that’s going to happen, it’s just going to be a matter of time. The smart ones will get here early and others will follow. That is definitely going to happen. I don’t think there’s an end in sight.
What about the next 15 NNMI centers? Any concerns?
My biggest concerns are about the general attitude that nothing the government spends money on is worthwhile and that the government screws everything up.
People to speak in those absolute terms fail to recognize how our economy really developed in the last century. That rhetoric started in the ‘80s, but now you have true believers that have no appreciation for the complexities of economic development, the complexities of public, private partnerships and they lack the patience that is needed to foster these kinds of collaborations.
If you think you can do economic development with bumper sticker slogans, then you’re missing the reality of it all. So my concern is that because of the rhetoric and the kind of politics happening in DC right now and at the state level, that the next initiative might not happen as quickly as they could or that they may not happen at all in other areas of the country.
And of course, NAMII is directly tied to their success and failure too. So we’re going to try to take the lead here in Congress as well as we can, but the more we have those concrete things to point at, the easier it’s going to be to sell it.
Really, I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of the region.
You look at what the University of Akron is doing with polymers, you look at what Kent State University is doing with liquid crystals, you look at all the different things that are going on at Case Western Reserve University and the technology that’s coming out of Pittsburgh, you look at our business incubator here in Youngstown and the impact that it’s had in our region and we’re definitely going to be something to be reckoned with. It’s just getting off the ground now.