Growing the manufacturing sector in Maine depends on industry’s ability to innovate and attract talent and the state’s ability to provide necessary infrastructure and education. Though manufacturing — whether of paper, computer or electronic products, fabricated metal, wood products or electrical equipment — might employ nowhere near the number of workers it did even 10 years ago, it is still a significant part of the economy, generating more than 10 percent of gross state product.
But conversations cannot focus solely on how to preserve the manufacturing jobs that remain in Maine. It must center on what’s ahead. What is the future of manufacturing in Maine, and how can the state create a long-term strategy for growth? At the same time that some sectors are taking root — such as biotechnology — the state has struggled to identify how to adapt to the complex challenges arising from globalization, digital technology and free trade proliferation.
Friday is National Manufacturing Day, and Kennebec Technologies of Augusta will receive the Maine Manufacturer of the Year award, presented by the Maine Manufacturing and Extension Partnership. The company has grown to more than 65 employees and specializes in complex, high-precision components for alternative energy, aerospace, defense, and medical, semiconductor and telecom applications. Maine can certainly learn from Kennebec Technologies’ innovation techniques and strategies for pursuing certain markets.
While Maine ranks close to last among states when it comes to job creation — it’s well known Forbes has ranked the state as the worst for business for four consecutive years — it ranks in the middle of the pack for its concentration of “clean jobs.” Maine was most recently listed as 26th due, in part, to the significant potential of the offshore wind industry. Alternative energy is an area that’s ripe for offshoots in manufacturing.
Other promising manufacturing areas are in advanced composites materials, forest byproducts, information technology and speciality foods. What is Maine’s plan to build up these assets? What is Maine’s strategy for promoting innovation? Right now, it doesn’t have one. It also doesn’t even have an adequate level of research and development funding available, which is essential for creating and commercializing new products and technologies.
A 2012 manufacturing report from the World Economic Forum put it well: “Companies regarded as more innovative grew net income over two times faster and their market capitalization nearly two times faster from 2006 to 2010 compared to their non-innovative counterparts.”
Maine must incentivize research, to produce innovative products that will sell. Where will the next world-changing product — like the 3D printer — come from? Maine?
It could be. A $200 million federal competition to create three new manufacturing innovation institutes in the country offers an opportunity for the state. Announced in May, the competition invites regional teams to present their ideas for innovation centers that would bring together private companies, universities, community colleges, federal agencies and nonprofits to create the technologies of the future.
Entities like those from Maine and the five other New England states submitted a proposal in the “digital manufacturing and design innovation” category. While the application is not yet public because it’s still part of the competitive bid process, the partners in Maine include energy businesses, universities, manufacturing hubs and the congressional delegation. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he is hopeful about the possibilities.
“We can’t build an economy by taking in each other’s laundry,” he said. “We have to make something.”
It’s encouraging to see the federal government investing in manufacturing innovation. The state must do its part, too. A similar competition for Maine could involve drawing in bright minds from here and other states. Incentivize, research, build, sell, repeat.