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VOL. 40 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 1, 2016

Designing materials for future needs

By Linda Bryant

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The 3D-printed Shelby Cobra car.

-- Photo Courtesy Of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

In 2015 the Obama administration recognized the state’s manufacturing star power when it selected the University of Tennessee as the site for a major national manufacturing initiative – the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI).

The unveiling of the Institute was a headline-grabbing event. Just how big was it?

Big enough to attract President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to Knoxville to tout the composites industry and 3-D printing. They visited plastics compounder Techmer PM in Clinton and checked out a 3-D-printed carbon fiber, Shelby Cobra, which served as an example of using composites in car manufacturing.

The $250 million public-private partnership involves hundreds of companies, schools and industry experts such as Ford, Volkswagen, Dow Chemical, Honda and Boeing and an array of high-level research institutions and universities such as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, Vanderbilt University, Purdue University, Michigan State University and the University of Kentucky.

So what are advanced composites and why are they relevant to manufacturing in Tennessee?

Advanced composites are very strong, stiff, fibers (such as glass or polymer) that are bound together with weaker materials. They are extremely strong and lightweight compared to the current materials used to make cars.

Advanced composites are currently being used to build satellites, airplanes and luxury cars, but there’s a driving demand to bring them into mass manufacturing, particularly auto manufacturing.

Blue

It means the cars of the future will be made out of lighter metals and will be stronger and less expensive.

“In six years cars will be mandated to be at 50 miles per gallon and higher,” says Craig Blue, IACMI CEO. “It’s going to require lighter materials, and using composites is one of the most impactful ways to light-weight a vehicle. We know the demand is coming, and there’s going to be a transformation.”

Tom Rogers, Interim Workforce Director at IACMI, agrees.

Rogers

“It [composites manufacturing] will be transformative,” Rogers explains. “There’s a tsunami coming. The future can be jobs, jobs, jobs and really good ones. I think the industry really understands that they have to go to composites.

“A crucial part of this work is that you have to take the cost out [of the manufacturing process],” Blue adds. “That’s right in our wheelhouse.”

Rogers illustrated one of the challenges of IACMI by comparing airplane manufacturing with traditional auto manufacturing.

“People who make airplanes are really proud when they’ve made a door in six hours,” he says. “In the automotive industry they need to make it in 60 seconds. Our challenge is to move into high volume manufacturing.

“Think about the 950 automotive manufacturers in Tennessee that employ more than 100,000 people,” he adds. “In order to meet CAFE standards we need to have lightweight, stiff, strong parts like carbon fiber composites.

“It means a lot of manufacturers are going to have to change from metal stamping to composites. It’s going to require a lot of retraining.”

CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards were enacted by Congress to reduce energy consumption by increasing the fuel economy of cars and light trucks. Metal stamping, also known as pressing, is the process of placing flat sheet metal in either blank or coil form into a stamping press where a tool and die surface forms the metal into a shape. It is essential in car manufacturing and a large industry in Tennessee.

As IACMI moves forward educational outreach will be a key focus. Rogers is ramping up efforts to work with students from the high school to the college level.

“We are looking at a huge opportunity and a huge challenge,” Blue says. “The opportunity that we already know the automotive companies are going to go to these new materials.

“If Tennessee knows where the puck is going to be, it’s going to a huge economic development advantage over the other states.

“The challenge is you have to train or retrain people,” he adds. “We also have an aging workforce. Just about the time it [compositing] starts ramping up, a lot of people will be leaving the workforce. We’ll have a whole generation of automotive industry engineers who have worked in metals.

“Now they are going to have to work in composites.”

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