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Some Parting Thoughts About The NNMI

In the midst of what can best be described as a difficult campaign season, there is a shining light of a government program that few people know about, much less understand. But I was privileged enough to be a part of it, serving as its chief communicator, from November of 2014 until March 2016. (I now work for another federal agency.) 
As a communicator within the program, it was not my place to write a posting such as this for public consumption. But now that I have moved on, I do have some suggestions that I would like to share, and to hear others' opinions on. 
But first, a little background. The program is the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, or NNMI for short. Its purpose is, essentially, to restore American manufacturing to its "We Can Do It" days of glory and leadership. It is inspired by similar programs in other countries, most notably Germany's Fraunhofer institutes.  
The NNMI works by establishing public-private partnerships aimed at conducting research in specific technology focus areas important to commercializing new inventions. How many millions, billions, even trillions of dollars have been lost to other countries that adapt our innovations to their machines, and sell the resulting products back to us?
Intentionally, the NNMI is geographically distributed. Each technology research institute is located in regional "hubs" that bring together industry, academia, and the government. As a result, the government is spurring economic development far outside the insular world of the Beltway.
Even if you know nothing about manufacturing, there are numerous indicators of the NNMI's momentous significance, both for the manufacturing sector and for the future of government as a whole.
  • First, it ensures that we are able to make what we need domestically, instead of relying on overseas manufacturing facilities. (Imagine what might happen if other countries controlled all the stuff we needed to buy...not just TVs and clothes and cars, but how about bullets?)
  • Second, it creates a space where young people can partake of critical workforce development programs aimed at training them for the important, in-demand and well-compensated jobs of the future. (Consider that the job prospects for new graduates are not great unless they are somehow involved in a scientific or technological field of study.) All the institutes are involved in workforce development, and manufacturing is one of those fields where you do not have to be a rocket scientist to be gainfully employed using the technology.
  • Third, it creates a model for national innovation that is fundamentally dependent on broad and deep collaboration - or perhaps more accurately, a nonstop conversation about how to make things, all types of things, smarter, faster and better.
  • Fourth, it models an impartial, reasoned way to create a new kind of government program - in which the President himself commissions industry and academic experts to find solutions, with no pre-determined decision about what recommendations should emerge.
  • Fifth, it embodies the idea of a whole-of-government, functional approach to a national problem, rather than one driven by a particular agency and its historic mission.
This isn't the place to talk about why American manufacturing has declined, or about all the specifics of the program. What I do want to emphasize is, first, the groundbreaking nature of the work that is being done: For all the things that the President achieved during his time in office, the NNMI will surely be its undervalued gem.
All well and good. But as any engineer will tell you, there is always room to make an excellent product or service even more excellent. To that end, here are some very broad suggestions:
  • Information Security: Since the explicit purpose of the NNMI is to give the U.S. an economic and national security advantage, there should be a study commissioned of potential information leaks and remediation methods, and a set of baseline protective actions agreed upon. One of these should be an immediate end to any foreign visits or tours at an Institute facility.
  • Focus: Any activity not essential to research or financial sustainability should be either eliminated or outsourced to other parties. The program has always placed a strong emphasis on reducing this burden, but if there are functions that can be merged (for example, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership at NIST already has contacts with small/medium size manufacturers in every state) then there should be an openness to doing that.
  • Outside Studies: No organization can objectively review its own activities. There should be greater involvement by third parties - paid for by the government - in reviewing institute operations and making recommendations for their ongoing improvement. This is keeping in mind that they have a very short window of time, in a very competitive arena, to become profitable - that is, 5-7 years to make money or fold.
  • Community: There needs to be a technology platform, almost like a Facebook, that brings together all parties involved in an Institute both locally and at the national level, with appropriately secure levels of permission. There could be an open space for the public to access; a level open across institutes; a level open to prospective members; a level open to members; and so on. The point is, conversations today happen online and more specifically on social media, in real time, on mobile devices. This part cannot wait.
  • Communication: This is an extremely important national program, because it is vital to our economic future as well as to our national security. There needs to be far more noise happening on social media, outreach to students, and a clear and consistent national message about what its priorities and accomplishments are, and why they matter. 
  • Consolidation of authority: It is important and an accomplishment that the program has thus far involved so many stakeholders so successfully. But with so many hands in the pot, there are too many hands in the pot. The President should appoint a Chief Manufacturing Officer of the United States, and that person should be the head of the NNMI.
All in all it was a tremendous privilege to be a part of the NNMI. It left a lasting impression on me as a citizen - and not only because I learned about the transformative capacity of government. The people involved in this program are dedicated public servants, as well as incredibly educated, experienced, impressive experts.
I hope that in a small way these sentiments help. Let's hope they spark continuous improvement, that they become part of the larger stream of conversation.
____________
All opinions my own.
Photo by NASA via Flickr (Creative Commons). Caption, provided by NASA: "Test Firing of 3-D Printed Part (NASA, Space Launch System, 07/24/13) Marshall engineers installed the injector in a subscale RS-25 engine model, and the engine was hot-fired exposing the part to temperatures of nearly 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit while burning liquid oxygen and gaseous hydrogen. A series of tests was completed in Test Stand 115 in the East Test Area at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala."

 

Image credit: NASA/MSFC

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