The IPC hosted a tour of Boston’s emerging hub for innovation in advanced manufacturing in the Seaport District. Within blocks of each other, the new non-profit MassRobotics, Autodesk’s BUILD space, and Flex’s Innovation Center offer a window into the ways in which innovation in hardware and software are creating unprecedented possibilities for manufacturing and related services. These entities are situated among a growing number of manufacturing and design firms, including Artaic, Black & Decker, Continuum, GE and Reebok. They form part of a larger network within the region that includes Mass Challenge and MIT’s The Engine, an incubator for hardware-oriented startups.
IPC researchers were joined by executives from AccuRounds, Artaic, EWI of Ohio, Medtronic, Raytheon, and SENAI of Brazil among others to learn more about the goals and operations of each entity and the ways in which they are fostering new models for innovation in both startups and established companies. “These innovation intermediaries are forging new pathways for how we innovate within and across firms and industries,” said Liz Reynolds, IPC Executive Director.
Mass Robotics, which moved into the area last December, is developing the robotics cluster in the region through a network of close to 300 companies engaged in robotics locally and globally. Besides acting as a convener and a connector of resources within the cluster, the organization provide office and lab spaces, and strategic partnerships to emerging robotics companies, acting as an “escalator” that supports startups that already have a prototype and will likely take a longer time to scale due to capital and technology requirements.
“We have a lot of large companies that want to partner with us because they want to innovate but don’t have the internal culture or capabilities, particularly as it relates to robotics,” said Saad. “They want to attract more attention from startups to their specific challenges. For example, there is a lot of attention on drones and self-driving cars, but not a lot of attention on how new robotics technologies might impact the steel and mining industry.”
In the fall of 2016, Autodesk opened the BUILD (for Building, Innovation, Learning and Design) Space, an industrial workshop and innovation studio focused on the future of making things in the built environment. Autodesk invites startups, academic researchers, and teams from architecture, engineering and construction firms for BUILD Space residencies lasting anywhere from a few weeks to a full year. Residents have use of the equipment and space at no cost, to investigate ideas in digital fabrication, automation, materials, and new ways of thinking about building.
Senior Director Rick Rundell states that the goal is to develop, with the building and infrastructure industries, a shared vision for the future, and to better understand how technology will support designing and making in that future. To engage with that future and foster new ways of thinking about technology and innovation, Autodesk also rotates software engineering teams from around the world into the BUILD Space for residencies of their own.
Flex’s Innovation Center, opened in late 2016, is one of five Innovation Centers the company has around the world, with its largest center in Silicon Valley. Flex is a Sketch-to-Scale™ solutions provider that provides design, engineering, manufacturing, real-time supply chain and logistics services to companies in various industries and end-markets. The Innovation Center provides space for startups as well as established companies interested in partnering to develop new products and processes. For example, Flex’s Yolita Wildman, Director of Textiles, is working with consumer companies to develop new “smart fabrics.” This is of particular interest to the region with the launch of AFFOA, one of the 14 new Manufacturing USA Innovation Institutes focused on advanced fibers and textiles and led by MIT’s Yoel Fink in Cambridge. “We have enormous opportunities and capabilities to create a global hub for advanced manufacturing here in the Seaport District in Boston,” said Babak Movassaghi, VP of Innovation and New Ventures at Flex.
In a roundtable discussion afterward, the importance of exploring new ways to innovate was underscored by both Medtronic and Raytheon representatives. Marie O’Malley of Medtronic said the company has always been innovative but is increasingly looking to partner with external actors like Flex. “We are very good on the device and therapy side but how do we partner with others to expand our innovation capacity?”
How small and medium size businesses engage with innovative advanced manufacturing technologies is a topic that has received significant attention nationally and in Massachusetts. Mike Tamasi, CEO of Accurounds, a precision engineering company that supplies many companies in the region across several industries, spoke about the management challenges of introducing new technologies into his company. Just acquiring new equipment isn’t enough. “You can’t just plop it on the floor and expect my guys to run it.” Tamasi ultimately acquired a 3-D printer and one of the younger college grads in his twenties on his team figured out how to use it. “It’s been making us money since day one.”
The issue of upgrading skills to work with new manufacturing technologies is a key theme within a highly technologically advanced Massachusetts where Tamasi and Ira Moskowitz, Director of Advanced Manufacturing Programs at the Mass Tech Collaborative, co-chair the state’s Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative. Moskowitz is overseeing the state’s $100m commitment to advanced manufacturing through the Manufacturing USA institutes, a network of 14 new R&D manufacturing initiatives. Massachusetts is involved in almost all of them and each institute is required to develop new models for workforce training and education.
It is likewise an important issue in emerging economies, as was outlined by Marcelo Prim of SENAI in Brazil. SENAI, responsible for the country’s vocational training, has recently launched a network of 25 Innovation Institutes in Brazil based on the German Fraunhofer Model. The Institutes support applied R&D with industry across a range of technologies (e.g., laser, embedded systems, polymers). Advanced manufacturing technologies are seen as a great opportunity for developing countries and emerging economies to increase productivity. This would ideally be relatively easy to do, with accessible new technologies that are increasingly affordable. The challenge for a place like Brazil is workforce skills. “The Brazilian labor force is on average 45 years old. They have trouble with smart phones. We have to teach the existing workforce how to work with new technologies from scratch.”
Overall, participants around the table agreed there are unprecedented opportunities for innovation in manufacturing processes, products as well as organizational models. Small and large companies alike are experimenting with new technologies as well as new models for innovation, increasingly with external partners. Education and training for the labor force, both those on the shop floor as well as those in management, is seen as critical to the adoption and integration of new technologies.
All agreed there are significant opportunities for developing the Seaport District as part of the larger advanced manufacturing ecosystem in Massachusetts. “We cannot let this go along organically,” said Saad. “We have to make conscious choices about developing advanced manufacturing and AI here to continue acting as the a global hub and generate benefits for the region.”