Philly Inc: Producing with Pa. brainpower

Carnegie Mellon, Lehigh program looks to RAMP up advanced manufacturing

Businesses look to stay competitive through all sorts of tactics, such as cost cutting, outsourcing noncore functions, and investing in R&D.

States look to stay economically competitive by trying to encourage their homegrown businesses to expand within their borders using a different set of tools: taxpayer-funded grants or loans, job-training tax credits, and infrastructure improvements.

The Corbett administration will try something a little different over the next year through a program to link technical researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Lehigh University with manufacturers (from small to large) to develop a new product or adopt cutting-edge production methods.

Called Research for Advanced Manufacturing in Pennsylvania, or RAMP, the program has received $1 million from the state Department of Community and Economic Development. But that money won't be going directly to companies, said Matthew A. Sanfilippo, executive director of Carnegie Mellon's Institute for Complex Engineered Systems. Rather, the $25,000 to $75,000 to be awarded to each proposal would fund graduate students who will work with the for-profit companies.

My first thought was that Pennsylvania already has a program focused on manufacturers: the seven industrial resource centers (IRCs) across the state, including one in Philadelphia. Since 1988, they've been helping companies adapt to global pressures, explore new technologies, and tap new markets.

To hear Sanfilippo describe it, the goals for RAMP compared with the IRCs sound akin to the difference between developing the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and stamping out a new pizza-box lid support.

Carnegie Mellon and Lehigh want to help Pennsylvania companies pursue new products that could be manufactured in the state as well as introduce smart grad students to innovative companies to encourage them to keep their brains in an industry often associated with brawn.

Sanfilippo said it's up to the companies to propose the projects they want to pursue with the two universities, but they'll have to be technical ones, not marketing studies. While there are no limits on the type of technology involved, Sanfilippo indicated that one growth area from which they hope to see proposals is in "additive manufacturing," which is commonly called 3-D printing.

Traditional manufacturing tends to be a subtractive process, he said. You start with a hunk of metal and cut away until you've machined it into a part. In 3-D printing, a machine like a giant ink-jet printer adds layer after layer of polymer to produce the part.

Both the defense and aerospace industries employ additive manufacturing, which has been an expensive and slow process, for their high-cost, high-value products. But Sanfilippo said 3-D printing is becoming faster and cheaper, which will allow other types of manufacturers to adopt the process.

"We want the United States to be leaders in that kind of manufacturing," he said.

RAMP's organizers will put out a call for proposals within a month on the program's website at http://www.ices.cmu.edu/ramp/.

 

Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at www.phillyinc.biz.