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Research and Development Priorities for U.S. Manufacturing: A Look into the Future

To remain competitive in the global economy, U.S. manufacturers will need to focus their research and development efforts in areas that are most likely to deliver economic benefits. A recent report identifies three of those critical areas.

by John Ward and Carla Langjahr

Cover of "Manufacturing the Future" report.Hydrogen energy technology, nanomanufacturing, and intelligent and integrated manufacturing are three areas that should be priorities for research and development (R&D) efforts by U.S. manufacturers. Those recommendations are from Manufacturing the Future: Federal Priorities for Manufacturing R&D, a report published in March 2008 by the Interagency Working Group on Manufacturing Research and Development (IWGMRD).

In the introduction, the report states, “For the U.S. manufacturing sector as a whole, the capability to integrate new designs, processes, and materials in a flexible fashion will translate into competitive advantages ranging from shorter product development cycles to new value-added products and sources.”

In addition to identifying three areas of opportunity for manufacturing R&D, the report also describes the critical manufacturing technology issues that need to be addressed within the areas. It also provides details on federal government activities, information about current and planned collaborative efforts, and an overview of important cross-cutting issues that affect R&D in the three areas.

IWGMRD comprises representatives from 15 federal agencies, including the Department of Commerce.

Response to 2004 Agenda

A priority for the Department of Commerce and many other federal agencies has been helping U.S. manufacturers meet the challenges of today’s economic environment. The administration’s policy to address competitiveness issues was most clearly articulated in a 2004 report, Manufacturing in America. The report identified a number of policy and program objectives for the federal government to pursue in its effort to support U.S. manufacturers.

IWGMRD was formed because of a recommendation made in Manufacturing in America: identify priorities for future federal support for advanced manufacturing technology. Specifically, IWGMRD was charged with “identifying the timely and critical early-stage developments needed to provide a fundamental foundation for industrial research and development and the commercialization of related applications.”

Long-Term Benefits of R&D

The three critical areas identified in Manufacturing the Future will bring benefits to many industries and sectors in manufacturing. For example, hydrogen technologies, which involve manufacturing components to produce, deliver, and store hydrogen, will be a critical component of any strategy designed to move away from petroleum-based fuels.

Nanomanufacturing involves creating ultra-miniaturized devices that have a broad range of applications. According to the report, nanomanufacturing “has the potential to impact virtually every industry, from aerospace and energy to healthcare and agriculture.”

Intelligent and integrated manufacturing involves applying advanced software, controls, sensors, networks, and other information technologies to rapid and adaptable manufacturing systems that fully exploit the latest production technologies.

Importance of Federal R&D

The role of the federal government in supporting basic research is substantial. According to the report, the federal government funds 61 percent of basic research, while the private sector accounts for 16 percent and state governments and non-profit organizations account for the remaining 23 percent.

The federal government will continue to have a critical role in maintaining and growing a healthy manufacturing sector in the United States. As the report notes, “Today’s revolutionary technologies and many of our most popular consumer products have roots deep in basic and applied research, much of it funded by Federal investment.” The federal government will continue to have a role in focusing on basic research “to protect and promote future American competitiveness.”

John Ward is a writer in the International Trade Administration’s Office of Public Affairs. Carla Langjahr is a senior adviser in the International Trade Administration’s Manufacturing and Services unit.

For More Information

The full text of Manufacturing the Future: Federal Priorities for Manufacturing R&D, along with additional information about federal government initiatives that assist U.S. manufacturers, is available on the Web at