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Think Globally, Act Locally

Manufacturing is becoming increasingly global (and thus less constrained by national borders) while simultaneously becoming more geographically specialized with  important elements of the innovation process now more regional than national in scope. This apparent paradox has often been overlooked in the past.  Increasingly we see more and more attention and analysis on regional elements such as clusters, hubs, institutes, ecosystems, industrial commons, and regional strategies.  The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) laid out a rationale to create a network of regionally based and focused manufacturing centers similar to what others have proposed.  An increasing number of scholars and policy experts are focusing more attention on regions and communities as a key component in revitalizing manufacturing.

The institutional ecosystem in a region consists of a constellation of key industries, suppliers, and key supporting institutions including private firms, public-private partnerships, government and educational institutions. This ecosystem is often seen as the nexus for bolstering and supporting what Pisano and Shih have dubbed the industrial commons that supports innovation in products and processes.  While some economists have advocated for a focus on research, development, and innovation as a key component to boosting manufacturing, missing from their analyses is a spatial element and the basic building blocks that must be in place to support the industrial commons and innovation ecosystem.

Recently, I had the opportunity to take a peek into one institution’s place within the regional innovation system in the Baltimore region.  Towson University’s Showcase featured programs and applied research in the Division of Innovation and Applied Research and other programs that provide a range of support to manufacturing in the region.  Some of this includes tools to support local start-ups such as incubators and existing businesses on issues such as 3-D printing and product development to STEM education, and programs focused on creating applied programs in areas such as physics, supply chain management, and human factors research.  There are many sources in a region and hidden gems that can be used. Knowing how to and where to go is the key.

In addition to these sources of support, we also find programs such as MEP with our local network of nearly 400 manufacturing regional manufacturing extension offices as critical elements in the regional manufacturing ecosystem. Building out, inventorying, and assessing your own local manufacturing support system is likely to become a key competitive advantage in the future as regions compete to support and grow their local manufacturing sector into one that makes the right products for the right customers the right way.   That will remain a critical challenge for regions in the future.

Let me know what you think about those gems in your local region that are critical to supporting manufacturing in your region.  Also check out the recent announcement about a competition to fund three regional hubs focused on filling the gap between research and product development by bringing together companies, universities and community colleges, and Federal agencies.

About the author

Ken Voytek

Mr. Voytek is the Manager of the Program Evaluation and Economic Research Group and the Chief Economist with the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). In his spare time, he collects baseball cards, reads obscure books and articles, and shares his bubbly personality with family, friends, and colleagues.

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