Two research engines helping Wisconsin’s manufacturing base remain strong

An interactive map posted online this week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms what you probably already knew about Wisconsin’s economy: Manufacturing and the jobs it produces are vital to the state.

The map reveals that while many state economies have shifted away from manufacturing, Wisconsin and most of its Midwest neighbors have remained somewhat reliant on that sector. The state is home to about 9,400 manufacturers that collectively employ about 450,000 people, or nearly 17% of the state’s workforce. It was fifth among the 50 states in manufacturing job growth from 2009 through 2012.

That’s simultaneously encouraging and challenging: Encouraging because Wisconsin has retained much of its core expertise in an era of global competition — and challenging because several bedrock industries, such as paper, plastic, and printing, remain under pressure.

Innovation in manufacturing across a mix of sectors is essential for Wisconsin to retain its manufacturing “market share.” Two recent announcements demonstrate that commitment.

In Madison earlier this summer, the UW-Madison College of Engineering announced the creation of a $25 million “Grainger Institute of Engineering” to attract clusters of top engineering faculty to define new research directions. Researchers in the new institute will initially focus on advanced materials discovery, material sustainability, and manufacturing — areas that can drive innovation in energy, consumer goods, health care, and more.

It will be a multidisciplinary institute within a college that is already highly ranked in nuclear engineering (ranked third nationally), chemical engineering (third), civil engineering (sixth), and industrial and manufacturing engineering (10th). A grant from the Grainger Foundation will draw additional support from the UW-Madison and another private fund.

In Milwaukee this month, a combination of state, academic, and industry supporters announced the launch of an Energy Innovation Center. The $900,000 center — to be built beginning in September on Milwaukee’s north side — will be housed with the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium. The consortium works with industry and engineering schools in Milwaukee, Madison, and beyond on energy, power, and control innovation.

The proposed center and the regional partnership behind it were highlighted by the White House earlier this year when it singled out the Milwaukee area as an “advanced manufacturing center of excellence,” which gives the region an edge when competing for support from a mix of federal agencies.

The Energy Innovation Center will help tap into a global clean energy market that is predicted to grow by nearly $2 trillion in coming years.

It will accelerate research around distributed generation and microgrids, energy storage, and energy efficiency, all of which are linked to the growing issue of energy security. It would also find ways to more seamlessly transfer that research to industry, and help build a workforce that can sustain the sector in Wisconsin amid a coming wave of baby boomer retirements.



The list of industry partners represents a “who’s who” of the energy, power, and controls sector in Wisconsin, with companies such as ABB, DRS Technologies, Eaton, GE Healthcare, Johnson Controls, Odyne, Rockwell Automation, and WE Energies.

The Mid-West Energy Research Consortium has identified 900-plus energy sector companies in Wisconsin that collectively employ more than 100,000 people and generate more than $38 billion in annual revenues. The consortium has helped draw in other partners in fields such as workforce development and security research.

What’s the size of the opportunity? Electrical equipment is already the single-largest manufacturing sector in Wisconsin, accounting for more than $2.7 billion in gross state product in 2011. The Advanced Energy Economy Institute predicted in 2012 that world clean energy markets will grow by $1.9 trillion over five years, and a separate report by the political Economy Research Institute predicted Wisconsin could see a net increase of $2.8 billion in investment revenue and 35,000 new jobs through clean energy growth.

Wisconsin has lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs since the peak of 600,000 in 2000, but collaboration that involves industry, technologists, academia, and government will help stabilize and eventually expand the state’s foundation. Manufacturing isn’t dead in Wisconsin. It’s just changing … and quickly.

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