The University of Tennessee was founded in 1794, right in the heart of the industrial revolution.
Now, as UT celebrates its 225th birthday, the world is again experiencing a massive change in the way goods are produced—and this time the university is on the cutting edge.
Advanced manufacturing, additive manufacturing, and advanced materials are often—incorrectly—used interchangeably, although they do all share the common aspect of pushing the boundaries of manufacturing.
In a very basic sense, advanced manufacturing refers to the use of new techniques and materials to replace traditional methods and materials, while additive manufacturing is a form of advanced manufacturing that involves the layering of materials on top of one another, such as with 3D printing, to craft a final object. Advanced materials are new substances created by researchers for use in advanced manufacturing.
“Advanced manufacturing and the areas of research that surround it play a vital role in our development as a college, for the university—indeed, for the nation,” said Janis Terpenny, the Wayne T. Davis Endowed Dean’s Chair and dean of the Tickle College of Engineering. “Manufacturing research is growing around the world in scope and importance. I am delighted that we are playing a prominent role in research and education innovations in advanced manufacturing. We are well positioned for the many new opportunities that lie ahead.”
There is perhaps no better person to explain UT’s emergence as a leader in these fields than Suresh Babu, who has served since 2013 as the UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Advanced Manufacturing.
“We’ve made big progress, even in just the last few years,” said Babu, who works out of UT’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering, or MABE. “We went from few people specifically focused on advanced manufacturing to every department in the Tickle College of Engineering having some research in that area, in addition to the College of Arts and Science, the College of Architecture and Design, the UT Space Institute, and the UT Institute of Agriculture all being involved.”
Babu was the first of three UT-ORNL Governor’s Chairs hired specifically to focus on advanced manufacturing. Uday Vaidya, the Governor’s Chair for Advanced Composites Manufacturing, arrived in 2015, and Easo George, the Governor’s Chair for Advanced Alloy Theory and Development, followed in 2016.
UT gained added expertise and a new perspective on advanced manufacturing with the recent arrival of Professor Tony Schmitz, who specializes in subtractive manufacturing and holds a joint faculty appointment at ORNL and MABE.
While additive manufacturing is about building something new by adding one layer at a time, subtractive manufacturing begins with a unit of source material and removes layer after layer to achieve a final product.
Starting this semester, UT is offering an online certificate program in advanced manufacturing, with an eye on developing the program into a graduate program for students drawn by the expertise and recognition of the university’s faculty in the field.
The prominence of UT’s faculty has also been critical in the university’s joining or leading top-notch advanced manufacturing consortia:
- IACMI—The Composites Institute: Launched in 2015 with $259 million in funding, IACMI is a collection of more than 100 universities, states, and research centers with a focus on using new manufacturing techniques to improve everything from energy to vehicles. The UT Research Foundation serves as the core institution.
- Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow: the Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, and EWI founded LIFT with a focus on lightweight materials and manufacturing.
- America Makes: an advanced manufacturing and 3D printing consortium, America Makes counts the National Science Foundation, NASA, Boeing, and the Air Force Research Laboratory among its key members.
- Advanced Functional Fibers of America: led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this $317 million public-private partnership is aimed at speeding up the development of new fibers and textiles for production in the US.
- The Manufacturing and Materials Joining Innovation Center: a research initiative based at the Ohio State University, the center is focused on the development of new materials, joining techniques, and ways to automate advanced manufacturing.
Even more impressive than the list of partners is the effect that advanced manufacturing has on the economy of the state and region, accounting for more than 16 percent of Tennessee’s gross domestic product—an economic value of $55 billion.
Of the 3.5 million workers employed in the state, 350,000 work in a field related to advanced manufacturing, meaning more than 1 out of 10 people in the state owe their livelihood to this slice of the economy. And that number is on the rise.
“Advanced manufacturing’s importance to the University of Tennessee, the state, and the world at large will only continue to grow,” said Stacey Patterson, UT’s vice president for research. “By offering our support in this area, we aren’t just helping the university in a present sense, but helping it and the state for future success and growth down the road. We’re really investing in our future.”
Spreading the Wealth
While the Tickle College of Engineering certainly has its share of initiatives in this new industrial revolution, UT’s strength comes from a surprisingly wide number of areas.
The UT Institute of Agriculture, for instance, has programs related to using lignin, the waste product left behind in biofuel processing, as a source for carbon fiber—an infinitely renewable source, at that.
Philip Enquist, UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for High Performance Energy Practices in Urban Environments, who is based in the College of Architecture and Design, developed one of the more visible recent successes for UT in this emerging realm.
A 2017 project—Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy, or AMIE—culminated in the 3D printing of a house and a vehicle that shared energy with each other, earning Enquist’s team a prestigious award from Architect magazine.
Halfway across the state at Tullahoma, the UT Space Institute has received several grants aimed at bringing US aircraft up to hypersonic speed, something made possible only by exploring new materials that hold up under the tremendous heat generated by those speeds without compromising weight or performance.
Speaking of space, MABE Associate Professors Anming Hu and Jeffrey Reinbolt are working with NASA on a project to help astronauts utilize 3D printers to make whatever tools they need, with the source material being what they have on hand, be it moon dust, Martian rocks, or bits of asteroid.
While no part of that would have made any sense to the first students at UT 225 years ago, chances are that UT students 225 years from now will look back at it as being as quaint as we view horse-drawn carriages to be.
Although we have no way of knowing what the world will hold when UT turns 450 in 2244, the same principles shared by people starting a university on the nation’s frontier will likely continue to thrive: curiosity, ambition, and expertise.