By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
We frequently take for granted the assets in Oak Ridge that other regions would, in the figurative sense, die for.
That reality came home to me more than 11 years ago when I was privileged to join the team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and later given the opportunity to be a member of the Lab’s senior leadership team.
Nearly four years after retiring from the Lab, the truism was reinforced again last week when ORNL and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) hosted the latter’s inaugural “EERE Industry Day.” Actually, it was an event held over two days to spotlight the broad Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy portfolio that DOE manages and of which ORNL is an integral part.
Symbolically, the program kicked-off under a tent in what is now a campus like quad flanked by thousands of square feet of new state-of-the-art buildings. Just 16 years ago, that site was a parking lot, separated from old buildings by chain link fences.
What a difference a few years and the leadership of UT-Battelle make!
And, to add further fuel to just how “hot” the region really is in terms of innovation, event attendees got to see first-hand something called the “Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy” demonstration or AMIE. It is a model that combines clean energy technologies into both a 3D-printed building and vehicle to showcase a new approach to energy use, storage and consumption.
“National labs are a national treasure, and one lab – ORNL – stands-out,” David Danielson, DOE’s Assistant Secretary for EERE, said in his keynote remarks. Earlier, in a one-on-one conversation, he continually emphasized the importance of innovation and the leadership role that ORNL is playing across all of the EERE verticals.
To further emphasize his point about one of those areas, Danielson embraced U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander’s preferred descriptive term for the region, saying that “the Oak Ridge Corridor is emerging as a new Silicon Valley for additive manufacturing.”
“We stand at the cusp of a huge manufacturing renaissance in this country,” Danielson said, citing the $44 million investment that has been made in just a few years at ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) off Hardin Valley Road. That building and others like the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility have garnered many headlines as have the location of one of Local Motors two microfactories near the MDF and the announcement earlier this year of the $260 million plus Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation program.
Yet, what really captured our attention at last week’s event was the way that companies – large and small, local and distant – came together to work with ORNL researchers to build AMIE. They included Alcoa, Clayton Homes, Cincinnati Incorporated, DowAksa, EPB in Chattanooga, GE Appliances, Hexagon Lincoln, IACMI, Johnson Controls, Knoxville Utilities Board, Spiers New Technologies, Techmer ES, Tru-Design, and the University of Tennessee’s College of Architecture and Design.
How many of those are local or at least have a local presence? Many, and that fact translates into economic opportunity for the region.
“We brought people together that could not do it alone,” ORNL Group Leader Roderick Jackson said. One of those companies is Tru-Design, a small start-up that we have profiled in the past on teknovation.biz.
“I would never have been able to meet with or work with Alcoa and Clayton,” Rick Spears, Tru-Design’s Founder and President, told us. Yet, he quickly related a story of just how meaningful and impactful those relationships became. It might be called an 11th hour challenge the team faced to complete AMIE. Working together to craft a solution, they did something in about two hours that might have taken three weeks.
“Partnerships are an essential tool for Oak Ridge National Lab,” ORNL Director Thom Mason told the attendees. To that point, Danielson added, “We want to dramatically increase those partnerships” across the DOE system.
The spotlight is clearly shining on this region in advanced manufacturing among other areas. The commitment to partnerships has never been higher in my opinion. We as a region are truly blessed by this convergence of need, innovative thinking, and opportunity.
As Jackson said, “This is the beginning of what if . . .” The challenge is to be sure we capitalize on these very opportunities by leveraging the assets that others covet. Expect more on this point soon.