(Knoxville News-Sentinel (TN) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 07--When Eagle Bend Manufacturing's leaders pitched an automaker a new technology to make a lighter, safer door, a researcher from Oak Ridge National Laboratory sat right beside them.
The 27-year-old Clinton factory won the contract -- its largest currently -- and has applied for a patent, the culmination of a partnership it forged with the national lab less than two years ago.
"It's a huge competitive advantage, and we are going to reap the benefits for years to come or until our competition catches up," says Ed Steinebach, general manager of Eagle Bend's 750-employee plant. "ORNL did all the testing, lab work, and helped us sell it to the customer."
After decades of touting the potential economic impact of its research and technologies, Oak Ridge National Lab is helping to produce tangible results with a receptive audience -- East Tennessee manufacturers who believe innovation is what will give them an edge on their competitors worldwide.
The lab has been on the forefront of securing federal investments in advanced manufacturing, developing in recent years the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility and Carbon Fiber Demonstration Facility, both of which operate independently but also complementary to its older National Transportation Research Center.
And in partnership with the University of Tennessee, it's recruited the top theoretical brainpower to match the real-life experience of individuals like Eagle Bend's research and development group who are also skilled tradesmen.
Combine that with federal grants that fund opportunities to bring them together to learn more about each others' capabilities and you have what appears to be recipe for economic success.
Eagle Bend worked closely with Dr. Zhili Feng, ORNL group leader for materials processing and joining, on the effort that's gained the attention of parent company Cosma International, a wholly-owned operating unit of global automotive supplier Magna International
"For Cosma worldwide, the technology was born here; we did it here," Steinebach says. "And we are not done. We have a lot of things we're throwing up to (Cosma's) R&D group. We are booking their work for the next year or so. We have a lot of good ideas.
"We want to export car parts all over the world," he adds. "We are not going to get there on labor costs or materials costs, but it's on the technology side that we are going to make gains.
"The potential growth we have coming up in the next five years is very exciting to us."
In their backyard
While the results of such partnerships are cutting-edge technology, the roots of the relationship can be traced to old-fashioned networking.
Steinebach is a member of the Regional AMP Manufacturers Network, a program of the Advanced Manufacturing & Prototyping Center of East Tennessee, a federally-funded effort led by Tech 20/20 in partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pellissippi State Community College and the University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Services.
"Working with RAMP gives us an avenue, it brings the people together, to know where to go and who to talk to," Steinebach says.
The experience is similar for Techmer ES, a manufacturer of high-performance custom compounds, which is housed locally with its larger sister company, Techmer PM, in Clinton.
Through a Techmer executive's attendance at an Anderson County Chamber of Commerce event, the fact that Techmer used carbon fiber came to the attention of ORNL staff working with its Carbon Fiber Technology Facility.
"They were surprised to learn we used carbon fiber in a chopped form," recalls Tom Drye, general manager of Techmer ES, which employs 75 people at three U.S. sites, "back then they were looking at carbon fiber only in a continuous form."
"We were totally surprised and they were totally surprised we were in their backyard," he adds.
Those conversations led to Techmer's introduction to the lab's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, where it's pioneering additive manufacturing.
Techmer is now part of the team announced in February that plans to develop a large-scale polymer additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, system.
The announcement of the cooperative research and develop agreement between ORNL and Cincinnati Inc., drew an Energy Department assistant secretary and a congressman to weigh in on its importance in increasing the efficiency of the U.S. manufacturing sector and ensuring that clean energy technologies are developed within America.
The partnership seeks to build a 3-D polymer printing system that is 200 to 500 times faster than what can occur today and is capable of printing components 10 times larger. The project could introduce new capabilities to the U.S. tooling sector and strengthen capabilities in the automotive, aerospace, appliance, robotics and other industries, according to the announcement.
Techmer ES is putting its knowledge to work creating compounds, using carbon fiber and other fillers, that can be used on Cincinnati Inc.'s machinery, says Alan Franc, the company's product development manager and a frequent visitor to the lab's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility.
"This allows us a path to develop that product that we wouldn't have otherwise," Franc says. "We don't have the capability to do that 3-D printing."
Techmer has made its own investment in the project, hoping to be a preferred supplier of compounds when the technology is commercialized.
"We are looking to get our name out there as a recommended material," Drye says.
It's too soon to guess what that would mean for its local operations, "but we certainly anticipate raising the volume and raising the need for people to run other lines," he says.
Riding the wave
To consider the economic impact of advanced manufacturing an overnight success can prompt a chuckle from Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who says its taken "a lot of work for a long time."
The lab won millions in federal stimulus dollars to accelerate technologies to help rejuvenate an already lagging U.S. manufacturing industry that was dealt another blow by the Great Recession. And it's done so with an eye toward becoming more energy efficient and environmentally friendly -- two priorities of President Barack Obama's administration.
The Carbon Fiber Technology Facility and the nation's first Manufacturing Demonstration Facility were two concrete results of those efforts and has served to help ORNL and UT raise the profile of their long-standing talent among private industry.
And it's allowed the two institutions to attract more talent. Consider that Suresh Babu, an authority in the production, design and performance of transforming materials into parts, for example, was recruited from Ohio State University to serve as the 11th UT -- Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor's Chair for Advanced Manufacturing last year.
In February, UT announced Babu would help lead UT's research effort as part of the Detroit-based Light and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation Institute, of which Alcoa is a founding member.
Mason notes much of the groundwork for the lab's manufacturing facilities for private-industry partners was laid during the economic downturn and as the private sector is beginning to take risks and make investments "things have started to pick up."
He also knows other factors have been in the region's favor, including the proliferation of natural gas as economical energy source.
"We have now seen the initial signs of a turnaround, and at this stage everyone hopes it's a trend," he says.
As a former chairman of Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley, the regional economic development agency administered by the Knoxville Chamber, Mason also notes that the automotive industry -- and now advanced manufacturing -- is high on job recruiters' radar and the focus of organizations helping existing industries expand.
"I think economic development is an activity where you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find one that turns into a prince. I think there is the possibility around manufacturing this just won't be an uptick it will be a trend ... and we should be able to ride that wave."
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