Q&A: Restoring The ‘Tech Belt’ With Next-Generation Manufacturing

The so-called “Tech Belt“ region of the U.S. has undergone explosive growth in the years since the Great Recession. In order to get more information about how that winning bid came together, and details about where NAMII is headed as it continues to grow, we sat down with Representative Tim Ryan, of Ohio’s 13th District, which includes both Youngstown and Akron.

The so-called “Tech Belt“ region of the U.S. — a newly-minted name for the corridor of manufacturing-centric land between Cleveland and Pittsburgh and the core of what has also been coined the “Rust Belt” — has undergone explosive growth in the years since the Great Recession. Some of the hardest-hit cities, such as Youngstown and Akron, have seen manufacturing’s return with very positive upward trends. Among the region’s largest success stories is winning the nationwide bidding contest for the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), a public-private collaboration to develop next-generation manufacturing processes based around additive manufacturing. The organization is now headquartered in Youngstown, Ohio.

In order to get more information about how that winning bid came together, and details about where NAMII is headed as it continues to grow, we sat down with Representative Tim Ryan, of Ohio’s 13th District, which includes both Youngstown and Akron. In addition, we asked him about the fundamentals of what he hopes to be the future of American “industrial policy.”

Manufacturing.net: NAMII was founded in late 2012 with a number of partners, both on the public and private side, plus educational institutions. What progress has been made since then?

Rep. Ryan: It’s been accelerating almost weekly since that happened at the end of last year. As of the last couple of weeks, we’re getting calls from major manufacturers, who will be making parts and making the machines, who are very interested in moving operations into the Mahoning Valley and into the Youngstown area. The folks on the ground are doing a hell of a job keeping this moving.

We’re also already training people to fill this next generation of work. The most exciting thing that’s happening on this front is that a month ago, Siemens donated $440 million in lifecycle software to Youngstown State University. This is cutting-edge computer programming equipment. NASA is using this software, and there are 70,000 engineers around the country being trained on this software. And when you get trained on this, you can work anywhere in the country. You are in demand.

We’re beginning to use 3D printing in getting kids introduced to additive manufacturing and how exciting this can be. DARPA is running a program where they want to fill 1,000 schools up with 3D printers. We’re saying to them that a certain percentage of those schools should be in the ecosystem of the additive manufacturing institute. We start getting kids on a track so that people don’t graduate from high school ... and stare at their wristwatch and say, “What am I going to do now?” They are already on a track to have a very exciting career, and participate in creating the next industrial revolution, coming out of Youngstown, Ohio. This is very exciting for young people.

Here we are today. We landed the thing. We’ve got a lot of momentum, and now we have a lot of private sector people calling to be a part of it. What’s happening in Youngstown is probably one of the best economic development turnaround stories in our country’s history. You’ve never seen two iconic cities, like Akron and Youngstown, hit rock bottom, and are turning it around with technology and additive manufacturing, building on their previous investments in educational institutions. It’s a hell of a great story.

Manufacturing.net: Why did you push so strongly to bid on getting NAMII into your district? What value did you see in your region, specifically, being the focus on that investment?

Rep. Ryan: This goes back all the way to 2007, when we started a Tech Belt Initiative. Congressman Jason Altmire, who was representing western Pennsylvania at the time, basically called and challenged everyone from Cleveland and Akron and Youngstown, all the way over to Pittsburgh, to come together and start forming a “mega region.” The Brookings Institute wrote a lot about how the future of economic development, and really, the country, was going to be defined by these mega regions, like the Cleveland-to-Pittsburgh corridor.

Our success, and I think why we won, was because we had the level of collaborations that were needed to pull this thing off. Both public and private. To have what Pittsburgh has, with Carnegie Mellon and Penn State, tied in with Case Western, and what the University of Akron is doing with polymers, and Youngstown State is doing with workforce development and STEM education — we’re all able to come together. Ultimately, that’s what allowed us to win that competition.

I’ve been convinced for a long time that manufacturing jobs follow the new ideas. If we connect these networks in northeast Ohio or western Pennsylvania, there will be innovation that comes from the creative excitement. That’s what’s happening now.

Manufacturing.net: NAMII was essentially unproven when you bid for it, and so was the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). Why take that risk?

Rep. Ryan: From Day One, my spiel is that we are going to be the best. We are going to be on the cutting edge, and we are going to drive the next economy. We were at rock bottom — we didn’t have anywhere to go. You can’t fall off the floor. My goal was to get everybody’s mentality in the position of being the best. I think NAMII was an opportunity for us to jump out front, and if you make a mistake, you make a mistake. So what? You dust yourself off and you get back up. You play to win. Our region, now, is playing to win.

When you challenge people and then you give them an outlet, and you encourage partnerships and collaboration, there’s an excitement that comes along with the possibilities. You can’t put a price on it. It’s like a great athletic team — maybe they all don’t have the best players, but there’s a synergy that’s created with teamwork and collaboration that no one can get on their own. That’s what’s happening in our area right now, and we happen to have some the best players as well. It’s a really great combination.

Fortunately, we have a President and administration that has a vision for this kind of [collaboration] as well, and it naturally aligned with what we were already promoting. The end result is how to drive investment into the region, and how to create jobs. Create that creative-type of environment, where it’s okay to mistakes. We know we’re going to come up with the next great thing. There may only be a few [successful ideas] out of, but those things will be gems, and they’ll lead to the next generation of manufacturing. That’s beginning to happen. There’s a level of excitement in the Mahoning Valley that I haven’t seen in my lifetime.

Manufacturing.net: Have you noticed a shift in public perception on these public-private collaborations, or government investments, like NAMII? What’s your take on it?

Rep. Ryan: To be frank, we have lost this debate over the last 20 years. Just because the Soviet Union isn’t out there to have a (space) race with, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t reduce the validity of the investments. We need to do that again. We need to do a better job of saying that these investments in bridges, broadband and the public-private partnerships like NAMII yield huge dividends. We have to go out and very, very vigorously make that argument. It is the recipe for success in the United States. It’s not all-government or no-government.

We have a lot of folks touting what’s going on with natural gas discovery in the northeastern part of the country. What they’re failing to understand is that from the 1970s, the program that unleashed this energy supply and led to hydraulic fracturing, was a Department of Energy research program, in partnership with the oil and gas industry. It’s those kinds of public-private partnerships that lead to the next generation of discovery or innovation. As we sit here and celebrate that discovery, at the same time they’re slashing the very same programs that will develop renewable energies through public-private partnerships. We have to recognize how we got to where we are today.

We have to change the narrative, but as of right now, we’ve lost the battle. Both Democrats and Republicans have to have the courage and the guts to make the argument. Yes, we have deficits, but if we don’t make these investments, our kids aren’t going to have any place to go to work. And if you’re against everybody being in the social safety net, you better have the guts to make the investments that are going to lead to the job creation so that people can go to work and make a good living. You can’t have it both ways.

Manufacturing.net: What’s next for you and Ohio? What are you working on to help make U.S. manufacturing easier?

Rep. Ryan: We’re definitely going to continue to push the China currency bill. I’m also a co-sponsor of a bill with (Rep. Michael) Rodgers (R-Mich.), who is chairman of the intelligence committee, on cybersecurity and trying to protect our intellectual property. Locally, we have a very aggressive economic development organization in place all over our region. It’s going to be one of those things were the first couple of companies will get the best deals, until the momentum builds where we create a real cluster there.

We’re not giving any stability, as far as the tax code goes. The R&D tax code, which a lot of manufacturers use — we’ve been going year-to-year with this. It doesn’t provide any long-term outlook for a business to say, “Hey, we’re going to take advantage of that because we know it’s going to be around for 5 or 10 years.” We can expand it and make it operate better, and be more of an incentive. The tax credit is a good example of being able to do that.

In eastern Ohio we’re seeing the benefits of shale, and the benefits of what low natural gas prices can have for manufacturing in the United States. We have to make the point: “Yes, this is a good thing. We have to be careful, and we have to do it in an environmentally-sound way, but this is the result of public-private partnerships that went well.” If we stop making those investments, we’re going to stop being the leader in the world in the technologies that are going to lead into the next generation of jobs.

There’s 8,000 component parts in a windmill. Or 400 tons of steel. If we’re not innovating on how to make that windmill, on how to drive the costs down because of innovations, or how to store the energy coming out of it, you’re hampering manufacturing in the United States. What steel manufacturer doesn’t want to make 400 tons of steel for one windmill that’s going to fly up in Pennsylvania or Ohio? Which supplier doesn’t want to be part of the component system that goes into a windmill? You can’t separate this stuff. It’s all inter-connected. Those investments, couple with private sector investments, lead to a boom in manufacturing. We can do that again, but we have to have a strong industrial policy.


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