Production scaling drives research and innovation

The age-old query, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”, can be applied to production at scale and innovative research.

Most people think of research and innovation as the precursor to large-scale production, and that often is the case. A breakthrough idea, through follow-on refinement, can lead to a well-received product that warrants mass manufacturing.

But it’s also true that production scaling — the ability to efficiently manufacture large quantities of a product or component — itself leads to research and innovation. This is especially important to consider as the U.S. has outsourced much of its scaled production over the past 40 years — which, tellingly, has led to a surge of research and innovation in those countries that have happily welcomed the opportunity to produce at scale.

Production at scale is a continuous learning opportunity. When you manufacture large quantities of a good, you invariably get new ideas as you debug and optimize the manufacturing process steps for maximum efficiency. These light-bulb moments can lead to substantial value-added improvements to a product or to entirely new products.

The accessibility of preexisting scaled manufacturing capacity as an economic given is also important to entrepreneurs in that they can envision a way to capitalize on their research and innovation by manufacturing in the quantities necessary to make their early-stage startup investment in time and money pay off.

Seeing a quick path to commercial success through scaled manufacturing is crucial to venture investors and other sources of capital. As the U.S. rebuilds its manufacturing capacity and production processes, reversing some of the excesses of its lengthy overreliance on outsourcing, investors of capital will view more favorably entrepreneurs who come to them with new product ideas, as the investors can see proven ways to realize their return on investment through commercialization at scale. More manufacturing output means more value added across the nation’s economy — and more profits that widen the pool of capital for further investment.

A nationwide network of manufacturing at scale also helps create and nurture a new generation of innovators. These “makers” progress from their prior roles in the value chain as engineers and floor workers to entrepreneurs, as their experience and natural curiosity enable them to see avenues for product innovation and commercialization.

Additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) plays a significant role here. It already has led to an enormous community of pioneering makers across the country, each toying in prototyping and small-lot production with their own bright ideas, many of which could come to fruition more easily in a country with scaled manufacturing capabilities as part of its newly refreshed DNA.

Also critical to scaled manufacturing is the digitalization of business. The ability to quickly and easily transfer design models and manufacturing process instructions from one production node in the value chain to another enables manufacturing-at-scale facilities to accept the various inputs from researchers and innovators and turn that code into humming production lines. Digitalization and the free flow of data also mean manufacturing at scale can either be centralized at large enterprises or operate in a distributed model across the nation in a digitally connected value chain. Digitally grounded applications like manufacturing execution systems and operations management systems provide the means to continuously collect and analyze data to make manufacturing at scale ever more efficient and profitable.

And if the innovation in manufacturing is based on large sets of data or created through digital manufacturing innovation unleashing the power of ever-more-powerful artificial intelligence, it becomes even more important to scale up manufacturing in an environment with access to all data generated throughout the production process and opportunities to use the data to develop new digital manufacturing software.

The societal benefits are immeasurable. Production-at-scale capacities across the nation mean more jobs, more opportunities to draw the disadvantaged into the workforce pool, and economically strengthened communities. And it leads to resiliency in the face of inevitable supply chain crises and shocks. It buttresses security and national defense, by way of the always-on capability to produce to need. The multiplier effects are enormous, cutting across all sectors of the economy, from supporting suppliers to restaurant owners to house builders, all providing necessary goods and services to nourish vast manufacturing networks.

It also helps create a deeper knowledge base of manufacturing across the country. Consultancies, academia, and manufacturing-focused organizations like Purdue’s eXcellence in Manufacturing and Operations (XMO) initiative that already have planted deep roots will see those roots sprout as they tinker with, refine and disseminate cloud-based, open-source manufacturing best practices and processes to small, midsize and large enterprises — lending vital support to ongoing generations of researchers and innovators eager for ways to optimize their businesses.

Stephan Biller, Purdue professor and XMO co-chair, speaks at the 2024 Dauch Center Conference: Digital Transformation in Manufacturing and Supply Chain. (Photo: Krock Photography)

The ability to manufacture at scale has been fundamental for this nation since its inception. The founding fathers, most notably Alexander Hamilton in his 1791 Report on Manufactures, realized that, as strong as the country was through agriculture and artisans, the ability to mass-produce everything from farm implements to textile products to defense arms would ensure the fledgling nation’s independence by reducing its reliance on imports.

Production at scale not only satisfies a nation’s need for essential goods, resiliency and a strong national defense. It also leads to a virtuous, self-repeating cycle of production improvements and research innovation in a sustainable advance toward a brighter and more inclusive future.

Stephan Biller is the Harold T. Amrine Distinguished Professor in the School of Industrial Engineering and the Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business at Purdue University. He is a co-founder and co-chair of Purdue’s national eXcellence in Manufacturing and Operations initiative and leads Purdue’s Dauch Center for Management of Manufacturing Enterprises. Previously, he served as founder and CEO of Advanced Manufacturing International, Vice President of Product Management for AI Applications & Watson IoT at IBM, Chief Manufacturing Scientist & Manufacturing Technology Director at General Electric, and Tech Fellow & Global Group Manager for Manufacturing Systems at General Motors. He is an IEEE Fellow and an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering.