By James P. O’Toole, Tracie Mauriello and Deborah Todd, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PITTSBURGH—President Barack Obama came to Pittsburgh Tuesday to promote innovation in manufacturing. He also called for some innovation in Washington’s approach to governing, but he seemed a lot more optimistic about the former than the latter.
On a stop at Bakery Square’s TechShop, the president announced a plan to give fledgling businesses expanded access to high tech resources, whether from the government or through wider sharing of private and university-based data and facilities.
Administration officials said the plan to provide access to expensive equipment and facilities is designed to lower the barriers to innovation. Obama cited the high tech facilities of NASA and — without any references to the NSA — the massive stores of data collected by government agencies as examples of some of the resources that offer potential for exploitation by manufacturing entrepreneurs.
The president announced the initiative after a tour of TechShop, a membership-based manufacturing workshop that’s a model for the kind of sharing of resources he wants to promote. ” For the cost of a gym membership,” Obama noted, small businesses can utilize the site’s resources, such as the 3-D printers and laser sculpting he observed on a brief tour of the East Liberty facility.
Coming the day after Obama announced an executive order to ban discrimination against members of the LGBT community in federal contracting, his order establishing the innovation initiative was one more example of the administration’s efforts to pursue policy changes that don’t depend on action by an often recalcitrant Congress. But in trying to spotlight the new domestic plan, the administration was confronted by a crowded news agenda dominated by events abroad, with a cascade of alarming developments in Iraq and followed by the capture of a key figure in the 2012 attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
The president discussed manufacturing opportunities and workplace issues in general at a question-and-answer session after his tour. He ended his appearance with an appeal to Congress to embrace at least some aspects of his agenda, including his calls for steps to promote manufacturing and to authorize more federal spending for infrastructure improvements.
“Infrastructure didn’t used to be partisan,” he said, citing the example of President Dwight Eisenhower’s support from Democratic lawmakers in the creation of the Interstate Highway Saytem
“It requires Congress to break out of this mentality that if I propose it, they are going to oppose it,” he complained.
In a conference call anticipating the visit, Pennsylvania Republicans said that reversing his administration’s energy policies would do more to promote manufacturing than the steps outlined by the president.
U.S, Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa. dismissed the plans outlined by the president and his aides as “window dressing,” calculated to distract attention from the harm he sees in the administration’s energy policies, policies he characterized as a threat to the nation’s coal mining industry.
“It’s an ideological agenda item posing as a plan,” said Rob Gleason, chairman of the state Republican Party.
Obama checked out a 3-D printer, and a high tech laser design machine during a brief tour of some of the equipment TechShop members can take advantage of. The tour was led by Matt Verlinich, general manager of TechShop Pittsburgh and included an explanation from Andy Leer, of ZeGo Robotics, of how an entrenpeneur with an design idea could turn it into a prototype within a day of work at TechShop.
James Gyre of Naked Geometry, showed the president a laser cutter, which he uses to rapidly etch intricate geometric patterns into wood, including a wedding gift for his aunt.
Elliot Kahn demonstrated a 20-ton injection mold such as the one used at another TechShop location to create the Square mobile credit card reader, a $5 billion business. Tuesday, he used it to create a presidential seal for Obama.
It was the president’s third visit to Pittsburgh this year. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who greeted Obama at the airport along with county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, tweeted after the arrival that he told the president that he was going to get him an apartment in the city to accommodate his frequent visits. Joining the president on the flight on Air Force One was Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
The visit was a sequel to another presidential stop here in 2011, in which Obama announced the formation of the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, an effort to knit together the resources of the private sector and government to speed the adoption of innovative manufacturing techniques.
During his visit, the president described new manufacturing investment commitments from 90 mayors cross the country, as well as the plan to provide private-sector innovators with access to expensive federal equipment such as wind tunnels at NASA and supercomputers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The plan would provide access to more than $5 billion worth of research, prototyping and testing equipment at more than 700 federal facilities.
The president’s appearance launches the White House’s week-long focus on innovation, administration officials said. The spotlight will shift to the White House Wednesday in what the administration has dubbed the “Maker Faire,” where innovators from around the country will show off prototypes of new products and network on their paths from planning to production.
AFP Photo/Jewel Samad