Current and Past Issues


Free subscriptions to newsletters, print publications, and more

The Future of Manufacturing

There is a something new going on when it comes to American manufacturing. After a major decline in the first decade of this century, more than 800,000 manufacturing jobs have been added in the manufacturing sector since 2010, when the Great Recession began to ebb. In that time, manufacturing has grown at nearly twice the pace of the economy as a whole.

Some of the resurgence in manufacturing can be attributed to low energy costs, particularly due to unconventional natural gas extraction, but other factors, such as the rise in worker salaries in China, long and unstable overseas supply chains, and the benefits that accrue from the proximity of designers to production facilities, have contributed to the phenomenon of reshoring -- manufacturers moving back to the US.  Approximately 265,000 jobs have returned to the U.S. since 2010. But for the most part, low-skill jobs are not the ones that are returning. The new jobs in manufacturing will require knowledge-based skills and digital savvy.

The next stage in manufacturing

There is a renewed interest in manufacturing in the U.S. and in U.S. universities, says Dr. Timothy W. Simpson, the Paul Morrow Professor of Engineering Design and Manufacturing in Penn State’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering. “People refer to it as ‘advanced manufacturing,’ and rightly so,” Simpson says, “because it brings to bear the latest technologies, including digital design, virtual and augmented reality, advances in robotics and automation, and the internet of things, when all of our machines are going to be able to communicate with one another, including the machines on the factory floor.”

In 2011, the Obama administration began a program to build a network of advanced manufacturing institutes that could revitalize moribund industries, such as textiles, or promote emerging industries, such as additive manufacturing/3D printing. Called Manufacturing USA, these government/university/industry partnerships have attracted well over 1,300 companies, universities, and nonprofits as members, in 14 geographically dispersed institutes.

Penn State has been a founding member of four of these institutes: America Makes, designed to make the U.S. 3D printing industry more competitive; DMDII, utilizing digital technologies for manufacturing and design; CESMII, focusing on clean energy and smart manufacturing innovation; NIIMBL, focusing on how novel materials can accelerate the manufacturing of biopharmaceuticals; and AFFOA, an institute to develop an advanced fiber and textile industry in the U.S. 

America Makes is represented at Penn State by CIMP-3D, the Center for Innovative Materials Processing through Direct Digital Deposition. This center brings together the materials, design, computational modeling, and processing expertise of more than 40 Penn State scientists and engineers to develop a basic understanding of the physics of additive manufacturing technologies, and to provide undergraduate and graduate training and workforce development in a multidisciplinary setting.  Simpson and the team just launched a new graduate program in Additive Manufacturing & Design ( that capitalizes on these strengths to address the growing industry need for education and training. 

Simpson, who is co-director of CIMP-3D, also led the College of Engineering’s thrust area on advanced manufacturing in their most recent strategic plan. His committee recognized that there are pockets of deep expertise across the university, and some centers of real strength, such as within CIMP-3D and the Materials Research Institute, but much of the advanced manufacturing activity is bottom up and uncoordinated.   

Simpson explains: “The Venn diagram we had in our report was made up of three parts: manufacturing processes, design, and materials. There are really impressive things going on at the intersection of each of those areas, from Clive Randall’s low-temperature sintering process, which is manufacturing and materials, to 3D printing, which is design and manufacturing, to bioprinting, which is also design and manufacturing with new materials”.

“Engineering can’t do this on its own. We need the materials folks, the design folks, and the artists and architects pushing new applications. For example, the technology is available to 3D print houses out of concrete. What could that do in regions that get hit by a flood like Houston just did or are trying to redevelop? We have got the technology now to ask, if we have a new material, what are the design possibilities? Because manufacturing technologies have advanced to this point, the economics changes, the applications change, the supply chain is rewritten or dismantled.”

For Simpson, advanced manufacturing is a synergy of the three parts: processes, design, and materials. That is where Penn State is very well positioned to make rapid progress, he says. This Advanced Manufacturing issue of Focus on Materials will highlight some of the faculty expertise that is beginning to accelerate the resurgence of manufacturing in America.

Contact Prof. Simpson at