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Anatomy of an AM Accelerator: Brookings’ South Kansas Advanced Manufacturing Case Study

The Brookings Institution, long one of America’s most prestigious think tanks, has released a case study titled, “Expanding South Kansas’ aerospace cluster into a resilient advanced manufacturing sector.” In the case study, Brookings fellow Robert Maxim meticulously dissects the Economic Development Administration’s (EDA’s) award of $51 million from the Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC) to South Kansas Coalition’s project proposal, “Driving Adoption: Smart Manufacturing Technologies”.

Launched in 2021, with final winners announced in September, 2022, the BBBRC involves $1 billion in funds administered by the Department of Commerce’s (DOC’s) EDA to “provide a transformational investment to 20-30 regions across the country that want to revitalize their economies.” As Maxim explains, South Kansas Coalition’s winning proposal centered around efforts by Wichita State University (WSU) and its partners to accelerate adoption of new manufacturing technologies, towards the end of perpetuating South Kansas’s historical strengths as a hub region for aerospace production.

Artist’s rendering of the WSU Hub for Advanced Manufacturing

Four Projects in One

“Driving Adoption: Smart Manufacturing Technologies” is in fact one mega-project composed of four interrelated sub-projects, to be completed over a five-year period. Rather significantly for the additive manufacturing (AM) industry, a centerpiece of the overall endeavor is helping small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in South Kansas accelerate efforts to incorporate AM into their workflows.

In addition to that aim, the other three sub-projects include (1) a similar effort to accelerate South Kansas SME adoption of smart manufacturing technologies — namely, anything related to cultivating an industrial internet of things (IIoT) ecosystem — (2) the establishment of a Hub for Advanced Manufacturing and Research (HAMR), and (3) development and implementation of a regulatory framework for governing and evaluating South Kansas Coalition’s activities.

Since all of those components necessarily interrelate and thus directly impact on one another, among the most crucial elements in determining the coalition’s success is the timing of each sub-project’s progress relative to the progress of all the other sub-projects. One of the Brookings study’s most important findings concerns the order of operations structuring the overall initiative. This was true especially in terms of the initial acquisition and commissioning of the required equipment:

“A key point that coalition members emphasized in interviews was that most of the curricula design cannot happen until the factory is set up and the equipment is delivered,” writes Maxim. “As Scott Lucas, vice president of aviation, manufacturing, and institutional effectiveness at WSY Tech, said, ‘You can’t really design a curriculum without knowing what the lab will look like.’ As with the [AM] project, ordering equipment has been a substantial component of this [smart manufacturing] work. Similar to the additive equipment and database being ordered through the [AM] project, manufacturers in the region will have access to the smart-manufacturing equipment that WSU Tech is procuring.”

Interestingly, Maxim pointed out that precisely the overarching issue that South Kansas Coalition’s work intends to address — supply chain uncertainty — has hampered the effort’s timeline: “The pace of this project has been affected by the global supply chain crises of 2022 and 2023. …Once [funds were] awarded, lead times were still unexpectedly long, primarily because the systems are custom built for the region’s specific use case scenarios.”

An important angle to this particular winning proposal surrounds the relationship between four-year university WSU and WSU Tech, a community college. As of 2018, the “Shocker Pathway” (named after the WSU athletic mascot) program allows students to begin pursuing a curriculum at WSU Tech that they finish at WSU. This not only means that WSU and WSU Tech already have experience at successfully collaborating in developing and implementing the sort of curricula at the heart of the advanced manufacturing effort: it also means that, once finalized, the advanced manufacturing curriculum will have the ability to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Why South Kansas? And Why Now?

As Maxim notes, the Wichita region has long been branded as “Air Capital of the World”, home to over 30,000 aerospace manufacturing workers — the highest concentration of any region in the nation. This is why WSU operates the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR), substantially contributing to WSU’s national reputation as an aerospace research center.

Regarding the timing, the March 2019-December 2020 grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX and its overlap with the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 combined to alert regional aerospace industry stakeholders to the need to revitalize South Kansas manufacturing supply chains. One of Boeing’s most important suppliers, Spirit AeroSystems, builds all of the 737 MAX fuselages in Wichita, and laid off around 5,000 employees in response to the 2019-2020 737 MAX grounding.  Maxim writes, “…South Kansas currently has strong growth and low unemployment, [but] the potential for future shocks to the aerospace industry could affect the region’s economic trajectory.”

Given how central aerospace manufacturing is to the US economy, the regional implications are just as significant from a national perspective. In this sense, South Kansas Coalition perfectly exemplifies the geographic rationale behind the Biden administration’s aggressive actions on industrial policy, with more or less the same rationale shaping manufacturing-related public policy around the globe.

Essentially, the logic here is to maximize the potential for organizing the next phase of industrialization around the key geographic, demographic, and sectoral strengths defining the current phase. From there, the main institutional and industrial drivers of manufacturing innovation will share resources and spread knowledge to SMEs — the backbones of regional economies and thereby the national economy — with the main long-term end-goal in mind of enabling manufacturing operations to serve as many different industries as possible as smoothly as possible.

The AM Playbook

In the case of the AM sub-project, Maxim breaks down the process at-hand into four parts: “1) creating a set of regulatory and guidance documents for industry; 2) conducting qualified factory development audits; 3) establishing a materials standards and material property database; and 4) creating a set of hybrid technical trainings, each of which contributes to firms’ successful adoption of these technologies”.

At the start of the AM sub-project, NIAR worked with companies including Boeing and General Electric (participants in the Biden administration AM Forward initiative) to write a white paper, released in March 2024, serving as guidance for SMEs looking to qualify AM parts. The audit process NIAR is developing is based on assessing firms’ effectiveness at implementing that guidance.

Further, NIAR is developing material databases for both metals and polymers that SMEs should be able to access by the end of this year. Finally, the coalition has developed curricula including both online and in-person instruction in AM processes, with different coursework for beginners, those with some prior familiarity with AM, and experts.

Beyond these AM-centric specifics, it is, again, maybe even more critical to focus on the relationship between AM and all of the project’s other components. In this context, Maxim explains that the purpose of the HAMR phase — the setting up of the advanced manufacturing hub — “is to co-locate many of the coalition’s [AM] and smart-manufacturing assets in a single hub.” WSU anticipates finishing construction of the single site by fall 2025.

Moreover, note the relevance of AM to what Maxim writes about the logic behind implementation of the project’s smart manufacturing components:

“The coalition is looking to build an industry-agnostic Smart Factory designed to be a platform for adopting smart-manufacturing techniques across manufacturing companies of all types and sizes. As a result, the equipment selected for the factory must have sufficient use cases to prove it can be used across multiple industries, ranging from medical devices to HVAC manufacturing. …Historically, different industries have used highly customized technology tailored to specific company needs. However, [coalition sponsor] Cisco is aiming to transform smart-manufacturing technologies from that of specific, company-level customization to one of “mass customization,” where there are a few baseline technologies that can be tailored to specific industry or company needs.”

While Maxim was writing about smart manufacturing there, the same concepts are perhaps even more applicable to AM. The lesson is that while the aerospace industry may be front and center in the South Kansas Coalition, it is front and center insofar as it is playing a leadership role in marshaling all of the talents of South Kansas’s entire manufacturing ecosystem. Among other things, WSU’s/NIAR’s work in developing AM techniques for the US Army ground vehicles program is concrete evidence of that.

Conclusion: Making Models for Making Models

Industry may have been using AM for decades, but there is still lack of a deployable, scalable model for systematically transferring that technological know-how to the companies most urgently in need of it. More so than any other aspect of the AM industry, that is what’s currently in the process of changing most quickly.

This may only be one (mega-)project, but keep in mind that there are 20 other recipients of BBBRC funds. At five years per coalition, by 2026 or so, the US will have access to data from over 100 years worth of research into developing advanced manufacturing clusters.

That strongly suggests that, as much as the Biden administration has already changed the course of US industrial policy, “we ain’t seen nothing yet”. The real transformations will happen in response to all the data yet to be unleashed.

At the same time, the ongoing release of data like Brookings’ invaluable case study can help all interested parties be proactive about influencing the government in its next rounds of funding for advanced manufacturing clusters. For instance, the fact that sourcing equipment was such a problem in the early stages of implementation for South Kansas Coalition spotlights once again the need to produce more advanced manufacturing equipment in the US (and close to the point of use for any locale attempting to reshore manufacturing).

All images courtesy of WSU via Brookings




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