LIFT in Midst of ‘Giant Pivot,’ Chief Says

DETROIT — Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow, the Detroit-based manufacturing institute is in the middle of a “pivot,” the group’s chief executive officer said.

LIFT wants to reach out to more small- to medium-sized manufacturers to become members, Nigel Francis, CEO and executive director, said in an interview this week. “The small- to medium-manufacturing base needs help,” he said.

Many large companies, such as Boeing Co., rely on such smaller manufacturers to produce parts and systems. U.S. defense efforts will need such manufacturers to be financially healthy, he said. “Defense is linked to the economy.”

The organization also intends to step up its efforts to commercialize new manufacturing technology, he said.

LIFT is part of the Manufacturing USA network of 14 institutes. As originally envisioned, the institutes would work with academics, companies and non-profit groups to research improvements in manufacturing technology. Advancements would be handed off to companies to develop commercially.

Until now, LIFT worked on projects with a “manufacturing readiness level” of 1 to 3, as defined by the U.S. Department of Defense. The department has instructed LIFT “to work in manufacturing readiness levels 4 through 7,” Francis said.

As a result, LIFT would be more involved in getting new technology commercialized.

Shift to Defense

“We’re in the middle of a giant pivot,” Francis added. “It’s a massive pivot for us changing our member base and our academic base.”

The manufacturing institutes were a project of the Obama administration. Most institutes are sponsored by the Department of Defense (including LIFT) or the Department of Energy. The plan was for the institutes to be self-sufficient financially after five years. LIFT had its five-anniversary earlier this year.

LIFT said in March that its cooperative agreement with the department had been extended for a year while negotiating for a new long-term accord.

Francis, who assumed the helm at the organization in 2018, said LIFT is moving toward working on more defense-related projects.

“The DoD institutes have coalesced more around the secretary of defense,” the LIFT CEO said. “The DoD is good at putting together an agenda that is mission-oriented. We are confident with our existence under the DoD umbrella.”