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Grant to fund microfactories, technology transfer, economic development for Indigenous communities

First major NSF outlay to ASU’s Global Center for Technology Transfer supports collaboration with Navajo Technical University


Artistic depiction of space and technology.

Photo courtesy Pixabay

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July 18, 2023

Arizona State University’s Global Center for Technology Transfer (GCTT) and colleagues from Navajo Technical University will develop geographically distributed microfactoriesAccording to Wikipedia, a microfactory is a manufacturing, assembly or production unit producing low volumes in a smaller footprint than traditional factories. and technology centers in the Navajo Nation thanks to $1 million in funding from the center's first major National Science Foundation grant.

The collaboration will enable Indigenous communities to play an important role in supply chain operations for the space industry, an emerging industrial sector in the Southwest, GCTT Co-Director Donald Siegel said.

The pilot program is called the Indigenous Innovation Network — Advancing Distributed Manufacturing Innovations in Tribal Communities (IIN-ADMIT). Principal investigators from Navajo Technical University (NTU) and GCTT developed a plan for an operational ecosystem for micromanufacturing technologies, which will be implemented in a manner consistent with tribal community values.

GCTT’s role will involve establishing legal, entrepreneurial and managerial frameworks that will facilitate translational research between ASU and NTU, as well as the contracting process with prospective industry partners.

IIN-ADMIT is among more than 40 unique teams to receive one of the first-ever NSF Regional Innovation Engines Development awards, which aim to help partners collaborate to create economic, societal and technological opportunities for their regions. It is one of the first grants to GCTT since it was created in 2022.

GCTT is a collaboration of ASU’s School of Public Affairs in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, the W. P. Carey School of Business, the Thunderbird School of Global Management, the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. The center’s goal is to bridge the gap between technology transfer research and managerial practice and public policy formation.

“Given GCTT’s commitment to inclusive, technology-based economic development and technology transfer, it is fitting that our first major National Science Foundation grant advances that goal. More specifically, GCTT’s NSF grant fills a major void in conventional technology-based economic development and technology transfer programs, which have often excluded tribal communities,” said Siegel, Foundation Professor of Public Policy and Management in the School of Public Affairs and a co-principal investigator on the grant.

“IIN-ADMIT leverages assets at GCTT, the Watts College, the W. P. Carey School of Business and ASU’s new School of Manufacturing Systems and Networks, working in partnership with Navajo Technical University, to develop geographically distributed local microfactories in space manufacturing and technology centers in the Southwest,” Siegel said. “These factories and technology centers will be developed in a manner that protects unique, Indigenous cultures and is responsive to community needs. While our initial focus is on the Navajo Nation, our long-term goal is to serve as a model for effective technology transfer involving other tribal nations across the country.”

GCTT Co-Executive Director and Management Professor David Waldman, Dean’s Council Distinguished Scholar at the W. P. Carey School of Business, and Sean Dudley, who leads the Research Technology Office within ASU Knowledge Enterprise, are also co-principal investigators on this grant. 

Waldman said planning will begin with a series of interviews with Navajo Nation members.

“The interviewees will include individuals representing government, business and the general workforce. The goal of these interviews is to better understand Navajo traditions, values, regulations and workforce issues that would either facilitate or potentially impede the project,” Waldman said. “As part of the project’s implementation, we will identify ASU students from the W. P. Carey School of Business who are part of the Navajo Nation and might serve in entrepreneurial roles in conjunction with the micromanufacturing facilities.”

Watts Professor of Public Policy and Management Maryann Feldman of ASU’s School of Public Affairs, who serves as GCTT’s research director and as an IIN-ADMIT co-principal investigator, recently joined the university’s faculty. 

“NSF has funded this two-year planning grant to allow us to work with the Navajo community to develop a plan for a distributed manufacturing network in a way that can be respectful of their priorities,” Feldman said. “Technology allows the remote geographical area of the Navajo Nation to potentially leapfrog ahead by making high value-added products, which will provide well-paying, flexible employment that will be more environmentally sustainable. This is an opportunity to learn from the community about more socially appropriate models of production. We are living the ASU model of engaged scholarship.”  

The project kicks off in late September with a technology transfer/community engagement summit at the Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona.

Based in Crownpoint, New Mexico, NTU has “established strong technical and training capabilities that are complemented by ASU’s technical, economic development and technology transfer strengths,” which will:

  • Establish a network of microfactories to benefit from space technology supply chain opportunities, as well as a roadmap for tribal adoption of digital infrastructure and digital manufacturing technologies that generate revenue and create jobs.
  • Increase community awareness of employment and entrepreneurial opportunities and resources to support entrepreneurs and enhance technology transfer.

NTU’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing will be the hub of a network of advanced manufacturing sites as the project is implemented. The ASU School of Manufacturing Systems and Networks in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, working under the direction of co-principal investigator Binil Starly, will equip IIN sites with state-of-the-art technology. GCTT will facilitate technology transfer and workforce development. 

"Navajo Technical University works closely with tribal schools, communities and leaders to develop technology-enabled opportunities that promote economic growth in ways that are both consistent with traditional Navajo values and provide exciting new career pathways," said Ragavanantham Shanmugam of NTU’s Advanced Manufacturing Engineering Technology program. "We look forward to joining with colleagues at ASU and all our partners to create a sustainable manufacturing network that reaches well into our remote tribal lands."

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