January 2001, staffing for the Manufacturing Systems Integration Division included 32 full-time permanent positions, of which 25 were for technical professionals. There were also 13 nonpermanent or supplemental personnel, such as postdoctoral research associates and temporary or part-time workers.
The sharp decrease in permanent staff is the single biggest issue threatening the effectiveness of the division’s efforts. No permanent staff positions have been filled in the last 3 years, and there are very few applicants for postdoctoral positions. This trend, if not reversed, points to a very clear and unfavorable outlook for the division and its programs. Staffing shortfalls have so far been dealt with by using large numbers of guest workers. While this strong reliance on guests has the advantage of bringing a constant flow of new ideas and perspectives to the laboratory, it puts the organizational knowledge base at risk. Core competencies can decay, and “corporate memory” can be lost. The panel is concerned that some damage may have already been done, and future damage is certain if the trend continues.
The panel presents the following major observations:
The technical merit of a majority of the Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory’s projects is very good. Laboratory staff are well respected in the relevant industrial communities, and MEL projects and personnel receive awards and recognitions that attest to the laboratory’s value to these communities.
The laboratory’s staffing situation is a serious concern of the panel. Senior individuals are retiring or departing, and the MEL is having difficulty bringing in permanent entry-level research personnel. Institutional memory is being lost, and the laboratory’s ability to sustain current core competencies or develop new ones is being impeded.
Progress on program planning at the laboratory level continues. Having defined criteria for project selection, the MEL now needs to take a systematic approach to determining priorities, demonstrating potential impact, and reaching out to relevant industries. The connection between project outputs and overall goals, such as promoting economic growth for industry, should be clarified. The balance between projects with short-term goals and products and projects focused on more basic research needs to be considered, and the connections between the two types of activities need to be defined. Finally, an objective process to determine program continuation or termination should be developed and implemented.
To continue to provide the state-of-the-art standards and measurement techniques needed by U.S. industry, MEL staff must have access to modern equipment comparable to that used by the laboratory’s industrial customers. A long-range plan for procuring the instrumentation necessary to support laboratory programs should be developed. An important element of this plan will be a time line describing how the equipment needed for the Advanced Measurement Laboratory will be obtained.