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White House / WHITE HOUSE

Military-Strength Diapers Point Toward U.S. Manufacturing Future

photo of Maggie Fox
June 24, 2011

President Obama and his science advisers launched a high-tech initiative on Friday to help take inventions from laboratories to the factory, with the hope of creating new jobs, and maybe a few military-grade diapers, in the process.

The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership is supposed to link academic researchers at universities with big companies that can turn their ideas into products. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) is also calling for changes in tax and business policies, including a permanent extension of the research and development tax credit, and an investment of up to $1 billion over four years.

The initiative, to be led by Dow Chemical Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield, aims to help U.S. companies invent, develop, make, and distribute advanced materials faster.

 

Obama, whose biggest reelection challenge may be the 9.1 percent unemployment rate and flagging economy, announced the initiative during a visit to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, a city that has ditched its dying blue-collar steel mill roots to reemerge as a center for financial and health care services.

Some of this collaboration is already working, Obama said.

“A few years ago, Procter & Gamble teamed up with the researchers at Los Alamos National Labs to adapt software developed for war to figure out what’s happening with nuclear particles, and they are using these simulators to dramatically boost the performance of diapers,” Obama said.

“Folks chuckle, but those who’ve been parents are always on the lookout for indestructible, military-grade diapers.”

Dr. Eric Lander, who helped lead the Human Genome Project from his post at the Broad Institute at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said this kind of collaboration needs to be better organized.

“I think the goal here is to do it in a somewhat more coherent way,” Lander told reporters in a telephone briefing. “For many important technologies, particularly at critical early stages and the most transformative ones, it really does take significant investment.”

Eric Schmidt, Chairman and CEO of Google and a PCAST member, said early-stage high-tech manufacturing cannot easily be outsourced because the designers and manufacturers need to collaborate closely. “That is not true for very mature industries where you can basically build the part anywhere,” Schmidt said on the call. The implication, new jobs for factory workers near the centers of innovation such as U.S. universities.

As part of the initiative, the National Science Foundation, NASA, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Agriculture will free up $70 million to support research in next-generation robots. The Department of Energy will work with the Ford Motor Company and the National Association of Manufacturers to educate and train “a new generation of manufacturers," the White House said.

“Imagine if America was first to develop and mass-produce a new treatment that kills cancer cells but leaves healthy ones untouched; or solar cells you can brush onto a house for the same cost as paint; or flexible display soldiers—flexible displays that soldiers can wear on their arms; or a car that drives itself,” Obama said.

“These are literally trillion-dollar industries that are in front of us. America can be the first mover, the first definer of this market,” Lander said.

By the way, the military-industrial link to the diapers has to do with modeling fluid dynamics, Lander says.

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