handsets, and carbon composite components for aerospace and wind energy. “I’m not sure we’ll end up capitalizing on our own inventions in those areas,” he said.
The Strong Link Between Innovation and Manufacturing
The reason that technologies can be lost to the nation, Dr. Kota said, is that manufacturing and innovation are strongly linked. The Federal government’s investments are made primarily in basic research, especially through the universities. “We are very good at that, and being the best in the world in scientific discoveries is vital to our success.” However, he continued, “this is no longer sufficient to compete in the global economy. We need to be able to do the rest of it—translating those ideas into prototyping centers, taking them into scaling. We’re pretty good at the first one percent, the inspiration, but it’s that ninety-nine percent, the ‘perspiration,’ where the real challenge is.”
Unless U.S. companies improve at commercializing new technology, Dr. Kota said, they will not be able to innovate the next-generation products. “As you do the scaling, a lot of new product and process innovations come about,” he said. “As an idea moves from a PowerPoint slide into a real product, it must be made safe, cost effective, light-weight, and reliable. If you don’t do that, you will not be able to capture the market.”
A Weakened Industrial Commons
Of central importance, Dr. Kota said, was the collective, overlapping set of competencies and resources known as the “industrial commons” that underlie the development of new technology products. The commons includes engineering R&D, materials, standards, tools, equipment, scalable processes, components, and manufacturing competencies in platform technologies. “Without those commons we cannot innovate,” Dr. Kota said. 7
The U.S. industrial commons has become weak in high-technology sectors, including biotechnology, life science, optoelectronics, information and communications electronics, flexible manufacturing, advanced materials, aerospace, weapons, nuclear technology, and computer software.8 As evidence, he referred to the nation’s expanding trade deficits in advanced technology products. In this category the U.S. maintained a trade surplus until the year 2000, but today suffers a deficit of about $80 billion.
7Dr. Kota referred to the ideas expressed by Gary P. Pisano and Willy C. Shih in “Restoring American Competitiveness,” Harvard Business Review 87(7-8), July-August 2009.
8National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, op. cit.