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technology review January/ February 2012
For many people in industry, the connections between innova-
tion and manufacturing are a given—and a reason to worry. “We
have learned that without a foothold in manufacturing, the ability
to innovate is significantly compromised,” says GE’s Idelchik. The
problem with outsourcing production is not just that you eventu-
ally lose your engineering expertise but that “businesses become
dependent on someone else’s innovation for next-generation prod-
ucts.” One repercussion, he says, is that researchers and engineers
lose their understanding of the manufacturing process and what
it can do: “You can design anything you want, but if no one can
manufacture it, who cares?”
After decades as the world’s largest manufacturer, the United
States now makes, according to some recent estimates, 19.4 per-
cent of the world’s manufactured goods—second to China, which
makes 19.8 percent. Even in high-tech products, the United States
now imports more than it makes. Those statistics have implications
for employment, national competitiveness, and even the politics
and social structure of the country. But equally worrisome, espe-
cially over the long term, is what the declining ability of the United
States to make stuff implies for the next generation of technology.
Can the United States regain its ability to take on high-risk manu-
facturing? To ask the same question in a different way, are many
of today’s most promising innovations in danger of suffering the
same fate as integrated photonic chips?
ElEctric Motor city
The city of Detroit, for decades the center of U.S . auto manufactur-
ing, likes to tout its efforts at urban renewal. A modern baseball
stadium sits at the edge of downtown; a bustling theater district
is nearby. Yet empty and gutted skyscrapers are within walking
distance of the shiny glass towers of General Motors’ headquarters
and the new condos that rise above the city’s riverfront. And on
the outskirts of the city, in areas bisected by highways with names
such as Chrysler Freeway and Edsel Ford Freeway, the devastation
is even more evident in the seemingly endless stretches of aban-
doned industrial buildings. Some 22 percent of the jobs in Michi-
gan are still tied to automotive manufacturing, and a decade of
bankruptcies and plunging sales among Detroit automakers has
left the region reeling. Nearly a half million jobs have been lost in
southeast Michigan since 2000.
Amid the ruins, however, the GM Detroit Hamtramck assem-
bly plant is an oasis of order and activity. Though its parking lot is
less than half full on a day in early fall, the massive plant, built in
the mid-1980s to make Cadillacs and Buicks, embodies Detroit’s
attempt to reinvent itself. A field of solar panels has been installed
in front of it; at the edge of the visitors’ parking lot is a row of car-
ports equipped with electrical outlets.
Inside the plant, Cadillacs and Buicks have been replaced on
the assembly line by the Chevrolet Volt, GM’s recently introduced
electric car, and its European counterpart, the Opel Ampera. The
electric vehicles fill roughly every other available space on the pro-
duction line, but GM hopes to ramp up production to 60,000
electric cars by next year. Like any modern auto manufacturing
plant, the Detroit Hamtramck facility is a whirl of robotics and
large parts moving deliberately along assembly lines that merge
at critical points; at one of those intersections, the painted steel
frame is slowly dropped down on the chassis and engine. Auto-
mated pneumatic wrenches puncture the relative quiet as they
apply precise torque to bolt the pieces together.
Near the center of all the activity, sitting by themselves, are the
T-shaped lithium-ion batteries that are the heart of the new car
and a source of economic hope for much of Michigan. The 435-
pound battery pack is a vast improvement over the hulking, 1,100-
pound lead-acid batteries used in the ill-fated first generation of
electric cars that GM made in the 1990s. The smaller, lighter new
batteries are far easier to accommodate in a compact car like the
Volt, and the new chemistry improves the vehicle’s performance.
Each battery pack contains some 288 cells, each of which con-
tains a series of precisely matched thin sheets of anodes and cath-
odes. If GM makes 60,000 Volts next year, those cars would easily
consume the output of several huge battery manufacturing plants.
But if the electric-car market suddenly takes off—say, because of
cheaper or more efficient batteries—the need could be far greater.
It’s been estimated that if electric cars accounted for a tenth of U.S .
auto sales, 43 large battery factories would be required to supply
The potential appetite for batteries among GM and other auto-
makers has led to the construction of at least half a dozen manu-
facturing and assembly plants in a 200-mile radius around Detroit.
Spurred in part by the Obama administration’s $2.4 billion in
funding for advanced-battery production and electric vehicles, this
The United States remains the
world’s most prolific source of
new technologies, particularly
materials-based ones, and
evidence is growing that its
capabilities could severely
cripple global innovation.
Jan12 Feature Manufacturing.indd 40
12/8/11 1:23 PM
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