Academics Aim to Reinvent Factories

Tim Goral's picture

Over the last decade, more than 3 million Americans have lost their jobs as factory workers. It is a safe bet that most have little in common with Suzanne Berger. She has spent four decades as a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has 50 scholarly tomes and treatises to her credit, several written in French. She stands about 5 feet tall.

She does not, in other words, fit the stereotype of a burly worker on an assembly line. But Berger and other academics like her may represent the new face of American manufacturing.

Led by MIT and spurred by a $500 million White House initiative, universities nationwide are helping reinvent one of the country’s most critical industries. They are pouring money and political capital into measures that reach across disciplines to devise new products and produce them en masse. Create new ways of making stuff, the thinking goes, and you create jobs for hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

But these factories most surely are not the factories of the 20th century. They are full of high-tech machines that cost more than a Ferrari. They use advanced robots to perform precise tasks and nanoscale technology that alters the fundamental properties of materials. They often make their products in a fraction of the time it used to take.

“This isn’t just about ways of moving widgets around,’’ Berger said. “What we’re talking about is a whole new set of technologies."

Several manufacturing innovations have already sprung from MIT labs. A123 Systems, which makes powerful lithium-based batteries for hybrid and electric cars, grew out of technology developed there. A molecular engineering lab run by MIT professor Bernhardt Trout is pioneering ways to make pills more quickly and give them longer shelf life.

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