Mike Buetow

Should governments be in the tech business?

In the US alone, there are organizations for developing and applying technology, measurements and standards (National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST); technology transfer in manufacturing (Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office, or AMNPO); and supply chain (the Supply Chain Innovation Initiative).

There’s also the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership, part of NIST, which  enhances technology transfer in US manufacturing industries and helps companies scale up new technologies and products.

Throw in the Department of Energy’s National Labs, where small manufacturers can access cutting-edge manufacturing equipment and conduct research through programs at Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories.

And by year-end, there could be 16 more manufacturing innovation institutes nationwide, part of the Obama Administration’s $1 billion National Network for Manufacturing Innovation.

The US is hardly unique. In Europe, Germany’s networks of technical institutes are an example of how researchers and manufacturers can work closely on everything from basic research (Max Planck) to leading-edge high tech (Fraunhofer).

The UK has the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS), which provides process improvement consulting and training, and the Technology Strategy Board, which pushes for supply-chain R&D collaboration.

Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) is an advisor-based system that dispatches experts around the country, where they help match smaller-sized firms with domestic universities and national labs in pursuit of technology transfer.

My question: Who benefits from all these agencies?

The value of a strong domestic manufacturing base is unquestionable. In the US, there’s something of a revival going on, with a net 830,000 manufacturing jobs added through last May from the employment trough in February 2010. That’s not China-like expansion, but given it’s the sector’s first sustained job growth since the 1990s, we will take whatever we can get.

It’s near-impossible to tie the current resurgence to the government programs, however (although to be fair, the NMMA is just getting off the ground). And certainly not all these programs are designed specifically for the tech sector, let alone electronics design and manufacturing.

At times, the assistance is very real. NIST had a hand in developing the various IPC e-commerce and product data exchange software formats, and participated in iNEMI’s lead-free electronics program. But the intersections appear to be, well, not nearly frequent or lasting enough to be worthwhile. Fraunhofer’s researchers are tightly connected to real-world products, such as BMW’s all-electric car, and the goal is to shore up that nation’s domestic production. That’s not at all what we experience in the US, where government tends to offer more in the way of program management, and consumer activity and product development are promoted as much by tax breaks or government subsidies intended to spur acceptance of a particular technology, but for which the beneficiaries often seem to be offshore workers.

Trade associations no longer fill the gap as they once did. When I was first getting into the electronics industry, Sematech was barely five years old, yet was already credited with turning around the US semiconductor industry. Industry roadmaps were just coming of age. The Semiconductor Industry Association launched its first roadmap in 1991; IPC followed in 1994. Today both have taken breaks from such efforts, while iNEMI has emerged as an almost singular driving force in forecasting future needs (see this month’s interview with CEO Bill Bader, which starts on pg. 32). The US government is, at best, a role player in all of this.

Perhaps that’s how it should be. The conventional wisdom holds that anything government can do, the private sector can do better, faster and more cost-effectively. There are a number of reasons for this, but the effects of competition and the need for business agility seem to carry the most weight. Governments are not nimble beasts. But one would hope that, given all the resources thrown at technology development and transfer, something of value would actually make its way from the government agency drawing board to manufacturing shop floors.

One thing governments can do better than any other entity is collect financial data on private businesses. In September at PCB West, we welcome Mark Crawford, a senior trade and industry analyst at the US Department of Commerce, who will share findings on the aggregate production, employment, financial status, and R&D activities of some 200 PCB manufacturers surveyed this year.

Crawford’s talk is one of the record-setting more-than-70 presentations at this year’s conference, and best of all, it’s free. Please visit pcbwest.com to register.

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedInPrint Article