By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Not quite a year ago, Bob Watts launched his latest entrepreneurial journey, one that linked his start-up participating in the 2014 autoXLR8R program and an Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) technology that appeared to be capable of being used to find substandard or missing spot welds.
More than 10 months after that exploration began, Watts and ORNL celebrated the licensing of the technology, specifically a specialized software program driven by the researchers’ innovative algorithm. The ceremony was held yesterday at the lab.
“It’s very simple,” Watts explained. “No algorithm, no software; no software, no product.”
The license with APLAIR Manufacturing Solutions, Inc. is for use in the automotive, agricultural, and aerospace sectors.
“We’re going to start with automotive,” Watts says. It is a sector he knows very well, as captured in an article we posted last August on teknovation.biz. In 2010 the Etowah resident founded another company – Advanced Measurement Systems, Inc. – to serve the collision repair industry with a multi-point laser electronic measuring system.
Watts, a driven businessman, admits that it’s been a long journey, but one that he hopes will result in a commercially available product by the second quarter of 2016. To reach that goal, he says there is important work that must still be done.
“The technology is proven to work in the lab, and I’m equally confident that it will work in the real world,” Watts says. “However, we need to do some additional testing to make it ready for prime time.”
The ORNL technology contributes to an integrated system that assesses the quality of spot welds. It involves three components working together – a database that must be constantly updated as new materials are incorporated into vehicles (think aluminum in the latest Ford F-150), software that must be capable of being integrated into the customer’s quality control or manufacturing system, and the actual hardware.
“It’s really three parallel projects,” Watts says. We asked if he anticipated this level of complexity when he started. “I had a strong suspicion,” he admitted.
With a goal of having a prototype ready by the end of 2015, Watts has engaged both ORNL and the University of Tennessee (UT) to complete specific tasks. In the case of the former, he says the original researchers are working with APLAIR under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement “to enhance the database to encompass new materials being rapidly deployed in the automotive sector.” This includes aluminum.
UT’s Rupy Sawhney is leading the systems integration software activities as well as the development of a capability to capture information that can be used for predictive maintenance on the welding machines. He recently received the Industrial Engineering and Operations Management Society’s “Outstanding Educator Award,” one of the highest honors presented in his field.
Even as Watts is driven by his natural propensity for action, he also says, “I don’t want to put it (the product) out there too soon.” Fortunately, both Watts and Jack Sisk, his colleague in the venture, have years of experience in what the latter describes as “lab to slab” activities. Their experiences involve design, development and product launches of vehicles, component products, and engineering systems for manufacturers.
“We need to do enough testing to document the dependability of the system,” Watts explains. “OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) will want to be convinced the system is dependable before we are given a chance. The best way to do this is to have performance fully documented.”
As far as the opportunities for the product, both individuals note the number of automotive companies nearby.
“Our market is in our backyard,” Watts says, citing Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Nissan in Smyrna and the state’s many suppliers. “We know a lot of folks in that industry.”
Even as they work to get the initial product fully developed, the duo is also considering new applications.
“We think this product might apply to projection welding in addition to spot welding,” Watts says. “If so, the database will have to be much broader.”
To read the ORNL news release, click here.