By David Goddard
It’s not every day that the leader of the free world visits a composites feedstock production facility in East Tennessee. So when he does, you can rest assured he’s there for something pretty important.
On January 9, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Techmer PM in Clinton, Tennessee, to witness a shining example of recent advancements in manufacturing technology—a 3-D-printed car based on the famous Shelby Cobra design.
This Cobra was born of a joint effort involving scientists and engineers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and students and faculty from UT. It took just six weeks to go from drawing board to driveway, highlighting the extensive technical expertise of the production team.
There’s no denying the Cobra is a showstopper. But the president turned even more heads when he announced that the University of Tennessee would be leading the country’s latest manufacturing innovation hub.
Headquartered in Knoxville, the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) is a mix of universities, labs, research centers, and government entities tasked with making advances in composite materials used in the automotive and energy industries.
“Winning this opportunity was a team effort made possible by the leadership at ORNL—especially Martin Keller and Craig Blue. We look forward to furthering our strategic partnerships with ORNL in this space,” said Taylor Eighmy, UT vice chancellor for research and engagement.
In addition to serving as IACMI’s lead institution, UT also will be conducting research on composite materials with ORNL.
“This project will accelerate the development of an advanced manufacturing system in East Tennessee, particularly around automotive manufacturing and materials development,” Eighmy said.
Spurred by increased interest in low-cost carbon fiber, IACMI will focus on new composite materials and manufacturing technologies. “We will also be creating hybrid material—containing both composites and metals—in manufactured products,” Eighmy added.
While IACMI’s $259 million in total funding will support research of specific interest to its more than 120 members, the entire region stands to benefit from access to the institute’s resources. With more than 10,000 jobs in the greater Knoxville area already tied to the automotive industry, advanced manufacturing improvements will have an immediate impact on the economy.
What Is Advanced Manufacturing?
Advanced manufacturing is the application of cutting-edge materials and emerging capabilities such as carbon-fiber-reinforced composites and the large-scale 3-D printing technology used to produce the Shelby Cobra.
UT’s research role in IACMI will include the development of fiber-reinforced polymer composites—plastics with carbon or glass fibers inside to enhance overall performance, including improved strength and stiffness.
The ultimate goal is lighter and stronger products that are cost-effective to produce and maintain.
With a great deal of materials expertise on hand, UT is well equipped for the challenge. Advanced manufacturing pioneer Suresh Babu and carbon fiber authority Dayakar Penumadu are just two of the top scientists dedicated to the mission.
“Carbon fiber is particularly challenging at present because it is too expensive for the automotive market,” Eighmy said. “That’s one major area where the ORNL-UT team could really have an impact.”
Eighmy explained that cutting the cost of carbon fiber in half would exponentially increase the use of composites in automotive manufacturing. Giving traditional automakers access to the technology will result in lighter, more fuel-efficient cars that are stronger and cost less to build.
The Green Factor
Environmental concerns are also a driving force behind IACMI. Advanced manufacturing techniques being refined by UT will allow parts to be built to exact specifications using a minimal amount of material. This additive process eliminates waste and reduces the energy needed for modifications and recycling leftover scraps.
For example, the auto industry currently stamps, frames, cuts, and molds parts into a final shape—all methods that generate plenty of scrap material. While some remnants can be recycled, the process is usually energy-intensive.
“You’re not only saving resources, but you’re saving a lot of energy,” Eighmy said. “It’s so much more than just a win-win. It addresses our future in manufacturing and our need for sustainable production.”
Re-establishing America’s global dominance in the manufacturing sector and reducing energy consumption are both lofty objectives that IACMI aims to achieve. The president is counting on it.