Supporting American Manufacturing with Industrial Design

In 2011, the President launched a national effort bringing together industry, universities, and the Federal Government to foster the US advanced manufacturing sector by enabling innovation, securing the talent pipeline, and improving the business climate for this important emerging industrial base. Central to innovation in the manufacturing domain is the industrial design sector, which focuses on making the user experience with new products easy and intuitive. So today we congratulate our colleagues at the National Endowment for the Arts for their release of a new and fascinating report, Valuing the Art of Industrial Design: A Profile of the Sector and Its Importance to Manufacturing, Technology, and Innovationthe first comprehensive look by the Federal Government at the American industrial-design enterprise.

Industrial designers develop the concepts for manufactured products such as cars, robots, home and electronic appliances, sporting goods, toys, and more. Working in a range of industries, these creative individuals combine the principles of art, business, and engineering to design and improve upon products and systems so they don’t just work but rather work with the people using them.

We are excited about the release of this report for several reasons. Besides the obvious fact that there would be no products to manufacture without designers to design them, Valuing the Art of Industrial Design provides a map of where the country's more than 40,000 industrial designers are doing their work, gives essential information about earnings and patents, and in its analysis confirms that industrial designers are not just adding decorative flair to others’ inventions but are themselves some of the most active inventors in the country. Between 1975 and 2010, 40 percent of people named on design patents were also named on utility patents. By contrast, only two percent of people named on a utility patent were also named on a design patent. Even better is the news that American industrial design has never been stronger, with more and more patents being earned every year.

What's most important is that this innovative sector continues to be tied closely to its manufacturing base in the future. As stated in the PCAST report on Advanced Manufacturing and the subsequent report of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnershipwhich was adopted by PCAST, the research and innovation ecosystem of the Nation is highly dependent on the presence of a domestic manu­facturing base that provides rapid and constant feedback to designers in terms of problems and challenges to be solved.  In short, industrial design innovation is most effective and efficient when coupled with intimate knowledge of and influence over the manufacturing process, and vice versa. Separating the two processes of design and manufacturing—through the often-short-sighted model of design at home but manufacture abroad—can interrupt this iterative feedback process and slow the development of next-generation innovations. 

We encourage discussion about the report and further research on not only industrial design but also its interconnectivity with advanced manufacturing and its role in the future of America's innovation economy.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation  at OSTP

Alex Slocum is Assistant Director Advanced Manufacturing at OSTP

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