DARPA chief: U.S. must return to manufacturing

DARPA's director warns the decline in U.S. manufacturing threatens the country's ability to innovate -- and defend itself

Cautionary testimony about the future of American innovation from the head of DARPA, the Pentagon research division that invented the Internet, has been posted on the website of the House Armed Services Committee. Dr. Regina Dugan, Director of DARPA, told Congress in March that the decline of the U.S. manufacturing sector could make it harder for the country to innovate in the the coming years -- and could pose a serious risk to national defense.

Dugan's warning was given to the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities and is one of several alarms raised by the Pentagon research think tank about the decline in the country's scientific and technical capabilities.

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"One of the biggest challenges we face as a Nation is the decline in our ability to make things," Dugan wrote. "Americans today consume more goods manufactured overseas than ever before...and yet they are less likely to be employed in manufacturing than at any time in the last 100 years."

The decline of the U.S. manufacturing sector is more than just an economic question, Dugan argues. It directly affects the nation's ability to continue innovating. How so? Dugan notes that many of the barriers to innovation are encountered in and around the manufacturing process: design, prototyping, early production, and the shift to large-scale production. Without a native ability to handle that part of the process, the United States will lack the tools and infrastructure to foster innovation and end up at the mercy of its friends, neighbors, and trading partners.

Rather than a return to the model of production and manufacturing developed in the 1930s or 1940s, however, Dugan said DARPA is investing $1 billion over the next five years in alternative design and product methods that will enable a new generation of a modular, "seamless," and democratized manufacturing enabled by the Internet, social networks, and technology.

The warning from DARPA is similar to others the agency has issued. In January, the agency noted that a national decline in students studying science, technology, engineering, and math posed a danger to the future competitiveness of the nation. Opinions differ about some of the details. As my fellow InfoWorld contributor Neil McAllister recently wrote about the "dead end" awaiting students with traditional computer science degrees, new tools make software application development skills a commodity and rob programmers of their elite status.

What's clear is that, for the last three decades, the U.S. economy has been testing a theory that may now be showing its weaknesses. It went something like this: The United States became a world power based on the strength of its factories and manufacturing. But manufacturing is dirty, and labor unions are expensive, so we can allow those dirty, labor-intensive businesses to move overseas. Meanwhile, "clean" industries beckoned -- first and foremost IT, but also health care, pharmaceuticals, and, of course, financial services.

This seemed like the best of both worlds: China and India can have the smog and we can buy the cheap goods they produced with money we earn doing civilized, tidy things like writing software applications or trading derivatives. The dotcom bubble enhanced that illusion. There's just one problem: It hasn't turned out that way.

For one thing, the Internet has enabled developing nations to leapfrog over the slow, evolutionary steps that allowed advanced nations such as the United States and in Europe to develop sophisticated, service-based industries in IT and other areas. Second, industries like technology, pharma, and financial services have never employed the millions of souls that used to keep the nation's assembly lines humming. The result has been a bifurcation of the economy and a collapse in the number of middle class, low- or medium skill jobs.

Now the United States finds itself struggling uphill as it attempts to rebuild its vital, but neglected manufacturing base. If that endeavor succeeds, more Americans will go back to work. But Dugan suggests that it will also lay the groundwork for a new wave of innovation and creativity.

Paul F. Roberts is a Senior Analyst at The 451 Group.

This article, "DARPA chief: U.S. must return to manufacturing," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.

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