May 28 2014 12:00 AM

Lansing looks to the 21st century ... and beyond

This column was corrected on May 30 to correctly identify Adam R. Havey.

Lansing has good reason to celebrate its rich manufacturing history. After all, workers here helped launch the automobile industry, pioneering the car culture that has shaped our nation. The city was an automotive incubator for entrepreneurs and inventors who developed products and technologies that fashioned Lansing's 20th century economy.

The foundation of this 20th century success was, in fact, grounded in the 19th century innovation. And we are still living off this bounty.

The automobile, with all of its modern adaptations, is at its core based on the developments of the internal combustion engine by Gottlieb Daimler (1885) and Wilhelm Maybach (1892). Our modern communications systems — television, radio, the Internet — spring from the understanding of the electro-magnetic spectrum by Michael Faraday (1831-32), H. C. Oersted (1820). Electric lighting: Thomas Edison (1881); alternating current: Nikola Tesla (1887-88); air travel: Orville and Wilbur Wright (1903).

The point is that technology often has a long life cycle. Some innovations happening now with companies like Niowave and Emergent Biosolutions, or expected with the pure-science research at the MSU Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) may well shape the 21st century and, perhaps, beyond. With companies like General Motors, for example, we can look into the future and see a rapidly changing, ever more automated, workers' world. But do we like what we see?

It smacks of science fiction to predict that robots will replace workers. But it's happening, most notably in the auto industry, and in Lansing, that means General Motors. Automakers employ about 80 percent of all industrial robots, and a modern assembly plant like GM's Lansing Delta or the Grand River assembly plants are prime examples. What they have today are by 21st century standards primitive machines that will be in the next decade or so displaced by smarter, more flexible devices, light weight, with acute vision, fine tactile skills and easy programming. The next generation of robots will work alongside people on assembly lines or warehouses. They will be inte grated seamlessly into work cycle.

It's politically fashionable today for businesses to position themselves as “job creators,” thus providing cover for tax breaks and other government largess. And better profits. But in manufacturing the push is for automation — capital investment instead of labor. General Motors is expected to build a $162 million, 225,000-square-foot stamping plant on land at the Grand River facility. The number of new jobs? Just 65. Blame or thank robotics. Automakers will continue to displace workers with machines and Lansing is positioned front-and-center for this evolution. It may seem like bad news for the UAW, but it is going to happen — and better it happens here where it will support technical, IT and transportation jobs.

GM in the coming decades will reflect our future. But there are other companies in Lansing that will set the stage for innovation in the 21st century and into the next.

Niowave Inc., with its Lansing headquarters on Walnut Street, operates among the highest rank of high-tech companies, building super-conducting electron accelerators used in the health care field and by the military. It produces isotopes, without the nuclear baggage of uranium, and has developed x-ray sources that can irradiate food. This is cutting edge technology.

While predicting the future is risky at best, the company's free electron lasers, essentially lasers that can be tuned in real time to different wave lengths, have the potential to revolutionize surgery, microchip manufacturing and all sorts of material processing.

As surgical lasers replace metal blades, the free electron laser becomes a medical multi-tool allowing surgeons (or robots?) to operate on substances as different as bone and fat and muscle. This makes it truly unique, says Niowave spokesman Jerry Hollister. He calls free electron lasers a technological breakthrough waiting for applications, much like the laser was when it was developed in the early 1960s.

The vast range of uses for lasers today was inconceivable 60 years ago. It could be the same for Niowave's free electron laser.

Also on the leading edge of innovation is Emergent Biosolutions, headquartered in Rockville, Md., but with its major manufacturing operation in Lansing. Best known for producing anthrax vaccines, the company has expanded into other antibody and vaccine products that focus on infectious diseases, oncology, autoimmune diseases and healthcare protective products.

While much of its research advances state-of-the-art drug manufacturing technology, it is also deeply involved in the field of proteomics, a fast-developing branch of biotechnology concerned with applying molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics to analyzing proteins produced by cells. The American Medical Association expects proteomic technologies to play an important role in drug discovery, diagnostics and molecular medicine offering a link between genes, proteins and disease. It can lead to the development of “personalized” treatments for cancers, diabetes and heart disease.

Emergent is working on this line of research with scientists at MSU, said Adam R. Havey, president of the company's bio defense division. The collaboration illustrates the importance of the university in shaping Lansing's future.

It is challenging to assess how the innovations from the FRIB will shape our world. But it is certain that hosting a large and sophisticated nuclear facility at MSU will place Greater Lansing at forefront of discoveries of the physics of nuclei, nuclear astrophysics. The field is in its infancy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's The Frontiers of Nuclear Science report. But the scope is vast. The FRIB's states its mission as probing the “fundamental questions about nuclear structure, the origin of the elements in the cosmos, and the forces that shaped the evolution of the universe.” And it's doing it in East Lansing.