Massachusetts awarded ‘future of manufacturing’ grant from National Science Foundation

BOSTON – Today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a new ‘Future of Manufacturing’ grant of $499,955 awarded to a collaboration of Massachusetts organizations, which will help the region’s manufacturers pivot their operations to address emerging crises. The project, called ‘Rapid Execution for Scaling Production Of Needed Designs’ or RESPOND, will create a diverse network of transdisciplinary stakeholders across academia and state government that will support and sustain critical ‘super nodes’ that will boost communication between organizations, help accelerate product development, and drive increased manufacturing capacity to address crises like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Announced on National Manufacturing Day, the grant will be led by UMass Lowell in collaboration with Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech), a public economic development agency, to develop a crisis-resilient manufacturing network. The grant will help the Commonwealth of Massachusetts build on the success of the Massachusetts Manufacturing Emergency Response Team (MERT), a state-led initiative that to-date has facilitated the production of over eleven million pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other critical items by 50-plus manufacturers that pivoted operations to address COVID-19 at the onset of the public health crisis. MERT’s membership included experts from UMass Lowell, MIT, WPI, the state’s manufacturing sector, and leading medical experts in the state.

“This award recognizes that ‘Made in Massachusetts’ manufacturing has incredible potential yet to be unlocked, and that thanks to our industry partners, Massachusetts is poised to play a leading role in shaping the future of the manufacturing sector nationally,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy. “The RESPOND project, validated and supported through this grant, creates potential for a high-impact, long-term program that benefits our manufacturing ecosystem statewide.”

The RESPOND network will build a framework and testbed to develop ways that Massachusetts can build shared resources, tools, education programs, and workforce development efforts to help rapidly pivot manufacturing in the state and to stimulate new relevant research in the area. While the MERT effort is solely focused on producing PPE in response to COVID-19, RESPOND will provide value well beyond this individual crisis and will allow Massachusetts, research leaders, and manufacturers to address emerging future crises in a quick, collaborative, and systematic approach.

“RESPOND is about understanding how and what we did through MERT to help manufacturers pivot during a crisis; in this case, the shortage of PPE due to disrupted supply chains. Looking to the future, we then can create simulations to understand the infrastructure and resources we need to build into our ecosystem to enable us to respond even more effectively to the next crisis or to ongoing economic competition,” said Julie Chen, Ph.D., UMass Lowell vice chancellor of research and economic development. “It has been a real honor over the past six months to be part of the MERT team. These are people from universities, hospitals, companies, government and non-profits that came together to make it possible for Massachusetts manufacturers to ramp up production of critical products to help save lives.”

“At WPI we understand the importance of collaboration to help solve some of our most pressing challenges. We are proud of our collective efforts to address critical needs during a time of a crisis and we look forward to our continued work with the RESPOND team and industry partners.” said Sara Saberi, assistant professor at Foisie Business School at WPI and co-PI on the NSF grant. “This grant also allows us to take what we learned from this crisis and expand our expertise in designing agile business innovations for future applications as well as planning for training, education, and workforce development. Building this capacity and knowledge for our communities based on science and scholarship is an important role for all our institutions.”

“This grant allows us to retrospectively study what we’ve done with MERT. So we can look at doing this proactively in the future; undertaking efforts of ecosystem engineering and manufacturing as a collaborative network of networks across public, private, and academic institutions,” said Ben Linville-Engler, the Certificate and Industry Director for the MIT System Design and Management (SDM).

As a member of the MERT, MIT’s Linville-Engler created a graphic that highlighting the connections created between academia, manufacturers, hospitals, and others since the MERT’s launch in March 2020. The graphic highlights the types of connections that will be enhanced and expanded under RESPOND. You can download a copy of the graphic on Dropbox or watch this interactive demonstration via MIT SDM’s YouTube page.

“We thank the NSF for recognizing the importance that planning plays in responding to a crisis and how RESPOND can help Massachusetts prepare for what’s next,” said Carolyn Kirk, executive director of MassTech. “On the MERT, the existing relationships we had in the manufacturing ecosystem allowed us to create a collaborative project that led to products getting into the hands of our frontline workers in a manner of weeks. The next crisis will challenge us in new ways and RESPOND will help us develop the communication channels, training, and tools so that our manufacturers statewide can meet that challenge head-on.”

The new network will contribute principally to the fields of manufacturing science, agile business models, product development and innovation, emergency preparedness and resilience, and data science. The network will disseminate its findings through stakeholder engagements, convening activities, and publications which include actionable documentation, resources, and tools.


Read more on the NSF’s award here and on the ‘Future of Manufacturing’ website.

Managed by MassTech, the public economic development agency that oversees advanced manufacturing programs for the Commonwealth, the MERT was devised as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to assist manufacturers in targeted ways as the demand for PPE continues. Over 900 companies from around the world submitted interest to the MERT, including nearly 450 from Massachusetts. Of those, 50-plus companies made it through the program pipeline and have produced over 11 million items of PPE and other critical materials to date. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts also launched a separate $10.6 million dollar grant program to support the manufacturing and testing response to COVID-19, which included awards to UMass Lowell, WPI, and other statewide organizations.

About the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative

The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech) strengthens the competitiveness of the tech and innovation economy by driving strategic investments, partnerships, and insights that harness the talent of Massachusetts. Launched in 1982, the agency is headquartered in Westborough, Mass., and has five divisions that focus on distinct areas of the Massachusetts innovation economy. Learn more at

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