ORNL hosts DOE’s third “InnovationXLab” showcase, region clearly on display

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

If you were a resident of East Tennessee, what was there not to love over the last two days as the third iteration in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) “InnovationXLab” summit series stopped at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)?

DOE Secretary Rick Perry made two major announcements on the first day of the “Advanced Manufacturing Summit,” and about 20 C-Suite executives from major corporations and a few start-ups participated in a series of panels focused on manufacturing of the future. The number of those with the “C” title in their responsibilities did not include other panelists or speakers who were listed on the program as Vice Presidents, came from DOE with a prefix to their “Secretary” title, or were senior executives at several national laboratories.

The event cast a wonderful spotlight on the region and the capabilities of the nation’s largest science and energy laboratory, a point that was clearly highlighted in a Wednesday morning presentation by Paul Dabbar, DOE’s Under Secretary for Science.

“East Tennessee is a great success story” in advanced manufacturing, he told the attendees. Materials and materials science that propel advanced manufacturing was the topic of this “InnovationXLab” series that previously spotlighted energy storage at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and grid modernization at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

During the event, we had the opportunity to talk with Daniel Simmons, DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), about the summit and the role that ORNL plays in helping his office achieve its goals.

“The MDF (Manufacturing Demonstration Facility) is such a great example of demonstrating the art of what is possible in advanced manufacturing,” he told us, noting the important work it is doing in “getting those technologies in the hands of industry.”

Simmons also cited two other important programs at ORNL that are integral to the advanced manufacturing agenda. They are the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility and the National Transportation Research Center.

As far as the EERE priorities, Simmons outlined three goals. One is affordable energy. “Lower energy costs are fundamental for human welfare,” he said. A second goal is doing a good job of integrating renewables, particularly wind and solar, into the grid. “We need a more flexible electricity grid on both the generation and demand sides,” Simmons explained. The final goal is improved energy storage that he said “helps all sources of energy generation.”

During all of Tuesday and part of Wednesday, panelists explored advanced manufacturing for several sectors including nuclear and fossil energy; discussed hybrid (both additive and subtractive) manufacturing; explored the importance of carbon fiber, composites and bio-derived materials; delved into entrepreneurial opportunities in advanced manufacturing; talked about accelerating technology commercialization; and viewed a number of various demonstrations.

Randy Boyd, Interim President of the University of Tennessee, was part of a Wednesday morning panel focused on talent development. In his comments to the attendees, he talked about the positives and negatives for the state in terms of advanced manufacturing.

“We are experiencing a renaissance in advanced manufacturing,” he said. “This is the place companies want to come.”

Yet, Boyd, who is noted for his command of facts and figures, offered this caution: “Twenty-three percent of the 163,000 advanced manufacturing workers in Tennessee will be retiring in the next decade. That’s a huge challenge.”

Known as one of the champions of the Tennessee Promise, Boyd had some thoughts on several areas that must change, both culturally and structurally, to meet the educational needs of the future workforce.

“We have a culture of lower expectations in our state,” he said. “We need to start at kindergarten to help parents dream bigger.”

Boyd also took note of the rapid changes occurring in manufacturing and other sectors. “Disruption in the workforce means there’s going to have to be a disruption in higher education,” he observed, citing a specific example tied to recent discussions with a major Chattanooga employer.

One of the announcements that Secretary Perry made on the first day was that Cray Inc. will build Frontier, projected to be the world’s most powerful computer at greater than 1.5 exaflops when it opens in 2021. The other was a groundbreaking ceremony for a new $95 million translational research facility that will house state-of-the-art laboratory facilities.

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