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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > ONAMI > NNI Reauthorization, "Nanomanufacturing" and U.S. Competitiveness

Skip Rung
President and Executive Director

We have a bill, HR 5940, with some very nice attention paid to commercialization, industry-research institution partnerships, technology transfer and "nanomanufacturing". The latter term deserves some reflection in light of the U.S. competitiveness issues it evokes.

May 21st, 2008

NNI Reauthorization, "Nanomanufacturing" and U.S. Competitiveness

Among others (such as Sean Murdock and Dave Rejeski) familiar to readers of Nanotechnology Now columns, I had the privilege of testifying in Congress regarding the crafting of the NNI reauthorization bill - in my case with particular emphasis on commercialization and user facility policies to support industry and small business, categories in which we believe the ONAMI collaboration has made some useful contributions. Now known as HR 5940 - the National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendments Act of 2008 - this long anticipated bill has been reported out of the Science Committee and awaits action by the full House of Representatives then reconciliation with the Senate.

I came away very impressed by the thoughtfulness and commitment of committee members and staff, who asked good questions, listened well and were even kind enough to apologize for the relatively light attendance at this hearing - compared to apparently weightier matters like substance abuse by professional athletes. In the words of Research and Science Education Subcommittee Ranking Member (Dr.) Vernon Ehlers "…I think this particular hearing, and certainly this topic, will have much greater impact on the future of this nation and its economy than most anything, certainly whether Roger Clemens took steroids, which has preoccupied the press and part of Congress for some time."

And of course, our faithful and indefatigable band of innovation-based economic development proponents are still very far from achieving the challenge given us by Senator Wyden to get presidential candidates to care about, and talk about, this issue. If any of the final three (in spite of Oregon's ballot count tonight, it's apparently still three) are cognizant of the critical role of research and competitive business formation for creation of high-wage jobs and the means to pay for their boundless promises and good intentions, they have hidden it well! (In reality, they are not ignorant at all, but merely reflecting 21st century America's collective sloth and baseless sense of entitlement back to us…which is a much more than "nano" problem.)

Still, we know that Congressman Ehlers is surely right, and the introducers of HR 5940 have given us a great bill, with particularly thoughtful sections on technology transfer (Sec. 4) and "nanomanufacturing" (Sec. 6).

Having spent 25 years in a "manufacturing" business (Hewlett-Packard semiconductors and inkjet), possibly all of it with nano relevance (do you remember what the leading edge gate insulator thickness was in 1977? 1000 Angstroms = 100 nanometers = "nanoscale" - with MOSFET function critically dependent on the detailed properties of that layer), I'd like to ruminate just a bit on "manufacturing" and "nanomanufacturing".

To begin with, I don't particularly care for the term "manufacturing", for reasons made clear to me years ago by my friend and HP VP Sam Angelos. Although HP was one of the first US companies to get beyond the unfortunate "over the wall" paradigm of "manufacturing transfer", there remained a subtle nuance that the manufacturing department was where those not smart enough to "invent" worked. In fact, in any US manufacturing organization exposed to international competition, engineers and technicians daily invent their way out of tight spots that strike terror into the hearts of lab rats like me, and the vital concurrent role of "manufacturing" today is product and process development and scale-up, including global supply chain management.

But when I hear the word "manufacturing" in a political context, it seems to lack this competitive achievement aspect, and instead evokes some sense of loss due to "unfair" trade or other misfortune visited upon us. As if the rest of the world fails to acknowledge Americans' (or Frenchmen's) divine right to more pay for less work…how dare they!

"Nanomanufacturing" is a little bit better. At least it implies a sense of science, sophistication and newness of methods and capital investment. And yet we're already concerned about it, I suspect in part, because the normal modus operandi of much of U.S. high-tech business has become foreign - usually Asian - outsourcing of the physical supply chain links. If we intend to seriously compete for nanomanufacturing jobs, it is going to be very important to accurately sift the causes for this, and I don't think they are all going to point to the need for more nanomanufacturing research. Are the reasons innocent ones like foreign market presence (US high-tech companies routinely report 70% or more overseas sales) or better leverage of high-wage human resources in early stage innovation and market development? Or do we need to face the fact that for low-cost high-volume production ramping it is usually faster (because Asian organizations have cultivated this skill while we have neglected it - and at the same time made domestic industrial property development schedules uncertain) and cheaper (due to high labor and exploding regulatory/risk abatement costs) to outsource? And of course, our STEM education/workforce deficit persists.

For the moment, however, while nanomanufacturing is new and trade secret protection preservation concern trumps cost sensitivity, we have less to worry about. When this gets as big and widespread as we all think it will, I am not as optimistic.

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