Tracy Hoopingarner, Oscar Aguilera and Eddie Tweed work in sales at RIX North—a company that designs and fabricates machine parts for a variety of industries in America—in Louisville, Tennessee. While they aren’t involved in hands-on manufacturing work at RIX, they are the bridge between the company’s machine shop and clients seeking custom-made parts or tweaks to existing parts.
That’s why the three attended a recent America’s Cutting Edge (ACE) bootcamp, a free, federally funded machining education program managed by IACMI– The Composites Institute, designed by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and taught at Pellissippi State Community College and other locations.
“It’s very important to understand the problem the customer has,” Aguilera says. Learning the basics of computer numerical control (CNC) machining “lets us see behind the curtain.”
In rural and urban Tennessee and across America, manufacturers are struggling to fill open positions. Many current workers need training to keep up with industry changes. And, to remain competitive with lower-wage markets, U.S. manufacturers need to automate.
Through ACE and other initiatives, UTK is developing cutting-edge products and processes and finding innovative ways to bolster the manufacturing industry across Tennessee and the United States.
“Around the time of World War II, the U.S. led the world in manufacturing,” says Tony Schmitz, UTK professor of mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering. In the decades since, America has become more of a service economy and outsourced manufacturing. “But, when you send manufacturing offshore, the innovation and workforce go with it.”
Nationwide, experts predict there could be 2.1 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2030.
“When I talk to manufacturers, they say they have 10 to 20 openings, and they can’t even get people to apply,” says Schmitz.
He admits that manufacturing has a PR problem. People still equate manufacturing with repetitive factory jobs once considered fall-back work for unskilled workers.
But that’s no longer the case.
High-tech processes, including additive manufacturing, automation and robotics, and artificial intelligence are revolutionizing the industry.
“It’s changing the types of jobs required in manufacturing environments. Rather than jobs that are mostly manual and repetitive, we need people who are comfortable with running equipment,” Schmitz says.
Vice Chancellor for Research Deborah Crawford said shortages and supply-chain woes of the past few years have underscored the need for America to be less dependent on foreign-made goods.
“Manufacturing is going through a renaissance in the United States,” she says. “If we learned one thing from the global pandemic, it’s that we need to invest in U.S. manufacturing to create a secure and sustainable future.”
ACE in the hole
Launched in December 2020, ACE is a nationwide effort to restore the prominence of the U.S. machine-tools sector through advances in training and technology.
“The ACE program has two basic components, the research and development side and the workforce development side. I sit right in the middle,” says Schmitz, who runs UTK’s Machine Tool Research Center, which focuses on improving and speeding up machining, the process of manufacturing parts by material removal.
Schmitz developed ACE’s nationwide course content.
Online training includes a six-hour course on CNC machining and two-hour courses on metrology (measurement), machine learning and additive
manufacturing. A module on cybersecurity is in the works.
After completing the CNC machining online training, participants can attend a 30- hour boot camp to get hands-on experience by machining four parts that make up an oscillating piston air engine.
ACE training is free and requires no prior experience. So far, there have been about 3,000 online participants representing all 50 states. More than 160 participants completed in-person boot camps in Knoxville and West Virginia.
Participants have included high-school students exploring career options, college engineering students seeking hands-on experience, hobbyists and industry workers who want to learn emerging technologies.
Turning big ideas into reality
Jon Phipps, interim director of UT’s new Institute for Advanced Materials and Manufacturing (IAMM), was visiting faculty across campus early in his tenure when he met a chemistry professor and a physics professor. Their offices shared a wall, and they knew each other only well enough to say hi in the hallway.
After networking through IAMM, the two professors are collaborating on what could be a multi-million-dollar research effort.
Their story, Phipps said, personifies IAMM’s mission: bringing together faculty from different disciplines to share ideas, pool talents and resources, and work with manufacturers to solve real-world problems, from energy storage and carbon capture to computing and communications and from biomedical devices and therapeutics to transportation and construction.
About 170 faculty across five colleges and numerous academic departments work with IAMM. Projects connected to IAMM result in about $120 million of research proposals each year.
At IAMM’s headquarters in UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm on Alcoa Highway, faculty, students and industry can access some of the most innovative tools in materials science: electron microscopy, diffraction, advanced photoelectronic spectrometer, molecular beam epitaxy, electromagnetic properties lab, micro-processing research facility and polymer characterization lab.
In partnership with the UT Research Foundation, IAMM recently launched the Tennessee Manufacturing and Design Enterprise (TN-MADE), a 40,000-square-foot manufacturing and design enterprise in Hardin Valley. Industry partners pay a membership fee to use the facility’s equipment for small-scale manufacturing.
Innovation South, an 83,000-square-foot mixed-use research facility in the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm, is set to open in late 2023. A public-private partnership, it will house a state-of-the-art fiber and composites manufacturing facility for creating product prototypes.
Business incubator and accelerator programs are also offered through the UT Spark Innovation Center at IAMM.
“While we work with big manufacturing companies like Eastman from the Tri-Cities area and Volkswagen in Chattanooga, we also work with start-ups like Windfall (recycling high-purity fiberglass) and SkyNano (carbon upcycling) who are bringing new technologies to market,” Crawford says. “Tennessee ranks eighth in the nation for advanced manufacturing capacity. To remain competitive, Tennessee manufacturers need access to new technologies and know-how, and to a workforce prepared for the advanced manufacturing jobs of the future. IAMM provides a gateway for Tennessee manufacturers to access our faculty and students and to tap UT’s state-of-the-art facilities and equipment.”
A prime example of how UT is helping the manufacturing industry is the university’s collaboration with Volkswagen.
Dayakar Penumadu, the Fred N. Peebles Professor and IAMM Chair of Excellence in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Tickle College of Engineering, leads the project.
UT’s work with Volkswagen began seven years ago, in the early days of IACMI, the $259 million public-private, multi-state partnership of 130-plus institutions representing industry, academia and government dedicated to growing the advanced composites industry. Volkswagen led a demonstration project to see if a fairly complex automobile part—a liftgate—could be manufactured from fiber-reinforced polymer-based composites instead of metal. UTK and ORNL researchers designed a novel sheet molding compound-based liftgate that had fewer parts, was lighter weight, durable without corrosion issues and could be made economically and in volume.
“I think that kind of gave Volkswagen confidence that we can work both on basic research and in the translational aspects of technology. It let them know that what we do has significant benefit to them,” Penumadu says.
Building on that success, Volkswagen chose to locate its first North American Innovation Hub at the UT Research Park. There, Volkswagen engineers work side by side with faculty and students on immediate needs and long-term visions for the automotive manufacturer. Volkswagen also funds a Ph.D. fellows program where students do targeted research to benefit the company’s lightweight and sustainable materials and manufacturing processes.
Such academic-industry partnerships help faculty researchers channel big ideas into solutions for real-world problems. Industry “employs” university expertise while training its future workforce.
Another benefit to UTK partnering with different industries: The university can be a liaison, helping companies share developments in ways that benefit all.
UT also is involved in several consortiums dedicated to improving manufacturing.
The Southeastern Advanced Machine Tool Network (SEAMTN), led by Schmitz, involves about 50 companies, colleges and universities, national laboratories, non-profit organizations and the Tennessee state government. Members share information, participate in educational efforts, attend technology demonstrations, and engage with research underway at UTK. The Department of Defense’s Defense Manufacturing Community Support Program has awarded SEAMTN $5 million for research and development of machine tools and smart manufacturing processes to help ensure America can manufacture the materials needed to maintain national security.
In July 2021, UTK, the University of Kentucky and the U.S. Army announced a five-year, $50 million advanced manufacturing project to help the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Army Research Laboratory develop the next generation of military equipment. The project is led by Senior Director for Space and Defense Programs Bruce LaMattina.
In August 2022, UTK became a core member of the Hybrid Autonomous Manufacturing, Moving from Evolution to Revolution (HAMMER) Engineering Research Center, a five-year, $26-million NSF project led by Ohio State University. UTK’s effort is led by Schmitz.
“HAMMER is developing and transitioning new manufacturing technologies to industry use, driving new technical education and credentialing to prepare, upskill or reskill the manufacturing workforce and expand capabilities across the manufacturing supply chain to meet industry needs,” Crawford says.
Parents, teachers: Encourage students to consider manufacturing as a career. It’s a field with good-paying jobs for people with varied interests and educational backgrounds―from high-school graduates to those with four or more years of college. In some cases, high-school students can get state funds to take dual-enrollment courses, like manufacturing trade courses.
Seniors (ages 60-plus): Study manufacturing as an encore career (or a hobby) by auditing courses or seeking a degree using waivers and tuition discounts at many state colleges and universities.
Industry professionals: Visit high schools to promote manufacturing careers and encourage students to participate in ACE training. Increase your own knowledge about industry changes by joining SEAMTN or seeking training through ACE.
Companies that want to tap into UTK expertise: Reach out to Stephanie Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org), assistant director for industry engagement at UTK’s Institute for Advanced Materials and Manufacturing, or contact UTK’s Office of Research, Innovation and Economic Development (email@example.com).
Start-up companies: Explore UTK resources, including incubators and advisory groups.
Donors: Provide in-kind donations to help SEAMTN with its federally required cost share. Consider gifts to help UTK students and programs.