In a twist of classic Pittsburgh irony last week, one of the city’s major bridges collapsed last week on the morning of President Joe Biden’s visit to discuss the future of infrastructure, supply chain systems and advanced manufacturing in the United States.
Fortunately, the collapse of the Fern Hollow bridge, which occurred last Friday, only resulted in a few minor injuries across those who were there, which included a few cars and a city bus. But the incident immediately went viral on Twitter, making national news coverage and drawing comments from politicians underscoring the need for more infrastructure funding to prevent future collapses like this.
On its own, an infrastructure collapse isn’t directly related to the tech industry (though stay tuned for coverage of potential applications of robotics to the construction and infrastructure maintenance sectors). But in the context of Biden’s visit to Hazelwood Green — a former steel mill turned fast-growing tech hub and advanced manufacturing center — the bridge’s failure immediately prompted questions of how robotics, autonomy, transportation electrification and more could not only create new economic opportunities but prevent disasters like this from happening.
Hosted at Hazelwood Green’s Mill 19, which houses the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, Carnegie Mellon University’s Manufacturing Futures Institute and Catalyst Connection, the president’s remarks emphasized the need for continued investment in American manufacturing, after years of outsourcing that work to other countries, putting a strain on the global supply chain industry as seen throughout the pandemic. Much of his speech focused on the cross-sector and institutional partnerships required to achieve, many of which are already well underway in Pittsburgh.
“Right here in Pittsburgh, the future is being built on the foundation of this city’s storied past,” Biden said of the transformation of Mill 19. He continued, saying that the “manufacturing resurgence we’re seeing today is no accident. It takes local leaders, federal leaders, foundations, businesses, unions and universities all pulling together.”
Through the work of all the partners that have built up Hazelwood Green so far, Biden said the research and innovation there is “rolling out the future” across advanced manufacturing, robotics, 3D printing and artificial intelligence. As a testament to that, the event’s small audiences included public officials like Mayor Ed Gainey and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, as well as local tech leaders like RE2 Robotics founder and CEO Jorgen Pedersen and Lance Lindauer, cofounder and executive director of the Partnership to Advance Responsible Technology, which recently published a report detailing many of Biden’s key points.
It's not every day that you get to have a 10-minute direct conversation with the @POTUS. It was an honor to spend time with Mr. Biden and hear his commitment to #robotics and US #manufacturing. @re2robotics pic.twitter.com/DFRWC9HQyf
— Jorgen Pedersen (@JorgenRE2) January 29, 2022
Biden praised Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania alike as places working to fulfill his goals across increased economic opportunity through the tech industry and closure of the digital divide for those looking to learn and enter the industry. He spoke of the growing focus on transportation electrification, too, mentioning recent funding allocated for new charging stations across the state as well as the work of companies like Wabtec, which is developing electric locomotives.
The focus on manufacturing has more than just an end goal of pride in seeing “Made in America” stamps on more products. For the tech industry in particular, an increase of local manufacturing jobs means that innovation can support people of all education backgrounds and skill levels, ensuring that those of the old industrial Pittsburgh still have room in its future.
It’s cool to hear @POTUS at @HazelwoodGreen mention entities in @Pittsburgh like @ARM_Robotics @WabtecCorp & @MadeinSWPA leading the charge for a future economy. What’s cooler is he has a growing treasure trove of efforts in the Pittsburgh region doing amazing work! Let’s focus!
— Lance Lindauer (@lancelindauer) January 29, 2022
While much of Biden’s talk involved the usual boilerplate, his choice to visit Hazelwood Green of all places underscored the efforts Pittsburgh as a city is making toward building a tech-centric local economy that can someday have the prominence its past industrial one did. That connection was emphasized by CMU president Farnam Jahanian, who pointed out in his introductory remarks that “Mill 19 is a fitting location for President Biden’s address on strengthening the national supply chain and revitalizing US manufacturing.”
“Today, Mill 19 is where CMU and its partners are catalyzing discoveries in the essential components of 21st century manufacturing,” he continued.
This latest visit was Biden’s second to Mill 19, after stopping by the site on his presidential campaign in 2020. Biden’s attention to the site is only the latest in a long string of big milestones for Hazelwood Green, which already houses autonomous vehicle companies like Motional and entrepreneurship organizations like OneValley. In 2021, partners of the site also announced two historic grants from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, one of $75 million and another for $100 million to support advanced robotics and life sciences development there, respectively.
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-