Manufacturers are leveraging their assets to deliver leading-edge solutions to the commercial and defense industries

March 30, 2023

By Mark Shortt

American manufacturing innovation is widely recognized as a key factor in boosting economic growth. It can propel company growth by increasing sales and capturing new markets. It is also a key building block of national security.

Today, contract manufacturers in the United States are supporting the creation of new and novel products that are pushing the boundaries of innovation. Whether it’s an electric, shape-changing submersible robot or mission-critical hardware designed using AI software, innovation is visible in numerous forms. We see it in the additive manufacturing of rocket engine components and in the development of a patent-pending adhesive reported to solve nylon bonding problems.

It’s also evident in a host of robotic applications, from autonomous mobile robots to robotic paint finishing systems. Today, even software-defined autonomous 3D printing factories are possible, with the ability to produce high-quality parts at production scale.

For any product, the ultimate test of innovation is whether it can gain commercial acceptance by fulfilling an unmet need. Opportunities to address such needs are everywhere today, and manufacturers are leveraging technologies like robotics and automation, advanced materials, AI, and 3D printing to make the most of them.

But they’re also benefiting from an even more important factor—the interpersonal interactions that are crucial building blocks of innovation. This includes the art of collaborating with colleagues, industry partners, customers, and people from diverse fields. The smart companies know that building a diverse team, internally and externally, can help facilitate the process of innovation.

A diverse team of problem solvers brings different skills, different knowledge, and different ways of approaching a problem based on an individual’s unique experiences, a company executive told D2P in an interview.

“Having a diverse team allows you to approach problems differently, look at problems differently, and eventually provide different solutions, which gives us more capabilities and more potential avenues to solving problems,” said Michael Schmitt, co-founder of HAMR Industries, in an interview.

Manufacturing and innovation have always had a close, interdependent relationship, where advances in one field bring benefits to the other. That dynamic is on full display today, as a growing number of manufacturers are reshoring their production to the United States when demand for American-made parts is surging. At the same time, the U.S. manufacturing industry is putting its best foot forward as a premier ecosystem of innovators around technologies like EVs, hypersonics, and robotics.

Coincidence? Probably not. It’s well documented that localized manufacturing (near the end user), as well as production near the product’s design team, provide fertile ground for innovation to flourish. Manufacturing a part or product closer to its designers enables easier, richer design feedback through person-to-person interactions between design and manufacturing engineers. The same goes for manufacturing near the end users, who provide valuable market feedback.

Innovation can impact manufacturing at virtually any point in the value stream—beginning with software for design and analytics, and extending through materials, parts fabrication processes, and finishing. Whether you’ve helped design a breakthrough product, leveraged a novel technology to produce a unique part, or created a long-awaited solution to a complex engineering challenge, chances are you’ve had some experience with innovation.

In this issue of Design-2-Part, you’ll see snapshots of companies that are practicing innovation in various ways, or playing a key role in creating or building innovative products. It’s a reflection of the fact that in American manufacturing today, innovation is alive and well.

Interestingly, because innovation applies to products and processes, it’s a two-way street that connects manufacturing and innovation. Just as manufacturers are essential to creating new products, they also benefit from the innovative processes that enable them to produce parts that were difficult, if not impossible, to make using previous methods.

The stories NASA Space Robotics Dive into Deep-Sea Work and NASA Turns to AI to Design Mission Hardware (by Karl B. Hille) highlight technologies developed at NASA that show great potential for solving unmet needs in commercial and defense markets. They represent innovations in ocean robotics and the creation of custom parts for the space industry, among others.

Both stories are reminders of NASA’s long history of transferring innovative technologies to the private sector. The first is about a NASA-designed maritime robot built by former NASA engineers at Nauticus Robotics. It’s an electric, submersible robot with applications in the defense industry, as well as oil and gas drilling, offshore data centers and telecom, and wind power.

The second reveals how a NASA research engineer pioneered an AI-assisted method of designing complex custom parts, including a titanium scaffold for a space telescope. In the article, Hille calls AI-assisted design “a growing industry,” with computers developing “everything from equipment parts to entire car and motorcycle chassis.”

He also states that NASA Research Engineer Ryan McClelland believes “3D printing with resins and metals will unlock the future of AI-assisted design, enabling larger components such as structural trusses, complex systems that move or unfold, or advanced precision optics.”

Make no mistake: Robotics and AI-assisted design have broad applications across all sectors of manufacturing for numerous industries. So do technologies like 3D printing and computationally designed materials. It should be a fun ride.

You can contact Mark at

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