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Net-Zero Manufacturing Is Possible

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Public-private partnerships will get us there a lot faster.

Manufacturing is part of the backbone of America’s economy and our communities. And the past year since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act has shown us that investing in a sustainable future can make manufacturing’s presence in America even stronger. Already, the private sector has put forward more than $110 billion in new manufacturing investments to support clean energy infrastructure.

Simply put, when the federal government invests in climate action, we get to the tipping point faster. But American industry, which contributes an estimated 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, can do more than grow as a result of this race to the top; it can play an outsize role in contributing to a sustainable future by addressing its own carbon footprint.

The good news is that the difficult transformations needed to move toward industrial sustainability have been in motion for decades. Greenhouse gas emissions from industry, including electricity, have declined by 14 percent since 1990. Now, with it becoming easier to embrace new forms of power generation and advanced industrial technologies driving decarbonization and resource efficiency, net-zero industry is attainable – and there is a way to move faster. The public and private sectors must now work together to ensure that all American manufacturers deploy these technologies.

That makes this an important moment to fully maximize a national innovation network known as Manufacturing USA, which exists for this very purpose. Manufacturing USA’s 17 institutes employ a public-private model for developing and scaling advanced technologies. The network is driving sustainability through work with material selection, product design, energy use, education and workforce development, and more.

Here are some of the technologies leading the transition:

Digital twins: One of the most powerful industrial capabilities is creating digital twins. These are precise digital representations of physical objects and processes that can be put through simulations to optimize things before they are physically created. This greatly reduces the amount of testing and the downstream waste that comes with it. In fact, the product development and design stages offer a window to address approximately 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact.

Additive manufacturing: Additive techniques, also known as 3D printing, use less materials and result in fewer parts. The process also drastically reduces the need for energy-intensive machining, which removes or reshapes material into a desired shape.

Lightweighting and advanced composites: Lighter and stronger materials are keys to energy efficiency and longer product life, two significant factors in sustainability.

Hundreds of companies partner with Manufacturing USA institutes and research entities. The company I lead collaborates with half a dozen of them, from projects with ReMADE on methods to recycle and upcycle chemicals, to work with NextFlex on integrating electronics more seamlessly into products with localized manufacturing, to creating an automated tracking and traceability solution for parts with the ARM InstituteLIFT and MxD are leveraging the power of digital twin tools and partner with us and other members to showcase energy-efficient, smart technology on the factory floor in their demonstration facilities. The RAPID institute is focused on energy efficiency and decarbonization breakthroughs for the traditional emissions-intensive chemical engineering processes.

This is an important time for Manufacturing USA to engage with not only large companies like ours, but to focus on making advanced technologies viable for small and medium-sized enterprises. Leveraging Manufacturing USA resources can lower barriers to entry, helping these firms to afford and adopt new technologies faster. This supports the development of robust supply chains to augment historic investments in new state-of-the-art factories.

The CHIPS and Science Act calls for the development of up to three new Manufacturing USA institutes to enhance U.S. leadership in semiconductor manufacturing. The Department of Commerce plans to launch an additional institute (unrelated to semiconductors) later this year. Additionally, the Department of Energy recently announced the creation of the 17th Manufacturing USA institute, EPIXC, which will lead research, development, and demonstration of projects to electrify process heating and decarbonize the industrial sector. These developments will leverage the best of government-funded research and private sector innovation to put the U.S. industrial sector on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Advanced industrial technologies are as vital to productivity and producing strong business results as they are to sustainability. They will help American manufacturers develop the capacity needed to meet rising demand for high-value goods such as batteries and semiconductors. Furthermore, as we learned during the pandemic, having resilient manufacturing supply chains also supports our economic and national security.

The Manufacturing USA network should thus be viewed as a valuable asset for forging the public-private partnerships needed to accelerate a sustainable, secure future. The old rules of competition in which companies fended for themselves and innovated alone  no longer apply; the digital age requires collaboration and what we call “coopetition.” And American business is needed to not only create jobs and profit, but to help advance national priorities such as sustainability and resiliency.

Working together, we can realize climate solutions and chart a new era for American manufacturing. It’s a win-win for business and society that should spark optimism in our ability to shape a better tomorrow.


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