What About Smaller Rust Belt Cities? A Call for Ideas

Examples of parts produced through additive manufacturing technology.  Source: plasticstoday.com, September 20, 2012.

When I first started this blog about 15 months ago, my original intent was to put a laser focus on midsized Midwestern cities, a group I viewed as often overlooked.  While I was born in Detroit, I spent half of my high school years and all of my college years between Muncie and Bloomington, IN, and I developed an affinity for cities like them.  In fact, one of the early posts here catalogued and categorized the 71 Midwestern cities with populations between 50,000 and 300,000, and it was an interesting exercise.  Ultimately, however, I decided to broaden the focus of the blog.
On a positive note, since I started this blog I’ve seen growing attention being given to larger Rust Belt shrinking cities.  Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit seem to get the lion’s share, for either their miraculous recovery (Pittsburgh) or continued peril (Cleveland and Detroit), and all three seem to be demonstrating the emergence of new models for Rust Belt prosperity.  Unfortunately, just as I shifted my focus away from the smaller cities, the rest of the nation seems to have followed suit.  What is to become of smaller Rust Belt cities?
Many will be fine.  Those that have become satellite cities, like an Aurora, IL or Lorain, OH, will do as well as the larger metropolitan area whose orbit they’ve entered.  Some midsized Midwest cities are fortunate enough to be college towns, and benefit from not only the economic fuel of a major university, but the consistent inflow of young minds (a select few cities match their college town status with being a satellite city like Ann Arbor, MI, or, better yet, with a state capital, like Madison, WI or Lansing, MI.  I see them being the real winners).  Bottom line, 36 of the 71 midsized Midwest cities I identified have some locational advantages that will aid in their survival and prosperity, if nurtured properly.
That leaves 35 relatively independent midsized Midwest cities that don’t have those advantages.  I see two emerging trends that could help a great many of them.
Water Security

I’ve mentioned this here before – if you take a fairly long view of the improvement of Midwestern cities, and seriously consider the specter of global climate change, water access and security could play a big role in the future growth of Midwest cities.  It’s entirely conceivable that East Coast, Southeast and Gulf Coast cities will be negatively impacted by rising sea levels, reducing fresh water supply.  It’s also conceivable that cities in the Plains, Mountain West and Southwest could be plagued by drought, reducing their water supply as well.  This could make cities on the Great Lakes more appealing.  I will, however, admit that the time when this could actually come to fruition is as open to debate as anything.
The second trend is far-fetched at first glance, but could be a panacea for the Rust Belt –
Additive Manufacturing/3-D Printing

The technology behind 3-D printing has accelerated in the last few years, and its useful applications are expanding exponentially.  Here’s a quick primer on the technology from Wikipedia:
Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. 3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques, which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes).

A materials printer usually performs 3D printing processes using digital technology. Since the start of the twenty-first century there has been a large growth in the sales of these machines, and their price has dropped substantially.

The technology is used for both prototyping and distributed manufacturing in jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, geographic information systems, civil engineering, and many other fields.

To date, additive manufacturing has not been utilized for large-scale manufacturing processes because the technology is not yet able to produce larger products.  3-D printers aren’t able to produce tractors for Caterpillar.  But Midwest cities have the manufacturing infrastructure in industrial design throughout the region that could allow them to be leaders in the field, and distinguish them from manufacturers in China and elsewhere.
Additive manufacturing could be the perfect marriage between technology and manufacturing, uniting the Silicon Valley and the Rust Belt.
What, specifically, do midsize Midwest cities have that could contribute to the expansion of additive manufacturing?  First of all, a legacy of building things and a general sense of how it’s done.  Cities throughout the region grew on the strength of building furniture, carriages, tractors, combines and other products, and continue to do so where possible today.  Secondly, relative to other regions the Midwest has a greater number of engineers who are trained in the design of industrial products, whose skills could may transition quite easily in the additive manufacturing environment. 
Today, I currently see nine midsize Midwest cities that are well-suited, through their manufacturing legacy and access to Great Lakes fresh water, to pursue this long-term strategy.  They are:
·         Toledo, OH
·         Grand Rapids, MI
·         Green Bay, WI
·         Erie, PA
·         Duluth, MN
·         Appleton, WI
·         Oshkosh, WI
·         LaCrosse, WI
·         Saginaw, MI
Another 15 cities may not have the Great Lakes water access, but do have the manufacturing legacy to pursue the additive manufacturing strategy alone:
·         Ft. Wayne, IN
·         Rockford, IL
·         Cedar Rapids, IA
·         Evansville, IN
·         Peoria, IL
·         South Bend, IN
·         Davenport, IA
·         Decatur, IL
·         Canton, OH
·         Youngstown, OH
·         Eau Claire, WI
·         St. Cloud, MN
·         Janesville, WI
·         Battle Creek, MI
·         Elkhart, IN
Whether water and 3-D printing become viable foundations for Rust Belt revitalization is entirely unclear.  At this point these ideas are simply the musings of a planner with a blog.  Even if the ideas are proven to be viable, not all cities would benefit; some would act more quickly than others and there would ultimately be winners and losers. 
But there will be no future for the Rust Belt without ideas and opportunities, and I’m doing my part to come up with them for the region I love.

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