Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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January 19, 2020 | Tom Ballard

COMMENTARY: VW’s new Innovation Hub was years in the making, further emphasizes area’s world class expertise

It took more than a decade, but the result of persistence and patience is truly significant with Friday afternoon’s announcement (see news release here and post from Tennessee Today site here) that Volkswagen, the number two manufacturer of automobiles in the world, will open its first innovation hub in North America at the University of Tennessee (UT) Research Park at Cherokee Farm.

The journey that I am referencing began in mid-2008 when Volkswagen selected Chattanooga as the location for its first manufacturing plant in the U.S. since global giant shuttered a facility in Pennsylvania in 1987. Both UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) were heavily involved near the end of the intensive recruitment. I know that for a fact; the late UT Vice President David Millhorn, current ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia who was Deputy Lab Director for Science and Technology at the time, and I were part of the effort to help City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, and Chattanooga Area Chamber leaders land Volkswagen for the Enterprise Center.

In fact, in my role as Director of Partnerships for ORNL, I remember presenting an overview of the lab’s research capabilities applicable to Volkswagen to a visiting delegation from Wolfsburg just a few weeks before the decision was made to select Chattanooga over two other locations. At the time, the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials had not been built and the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) had not been won.

Did the presence of ORNL make a difference in Volkswagen’s decision to select Chattanooga? Community leaders at the time said it did.

Since the announcement and the opening of the plant in 2011, a number of great things have happened culminating with Friday’s celebration. They built on collaborations with both UT and ORNL. For example, UT Chattanooga and Volkswagen developed an MBA program allowing Volkswagen employees to earn their degree by taking classes at the plant or on campus. Volkswagen became a member of the Knoxville-based IACMI, a cooperative agreement between UT Knoxville and the Department of Energy, in which UT researchers and their collaborators created a novel composite liftgate for the Volkswagen Atlas that reduces cost, weight, and energy usage by 25 percent.

This new innovation hub at the UT Research Park will join Volkswagen’s larger global innovation ecosystem that includes three innovation centers in Belmont, CA; Wolfsburg; and Beijing, China and other innovation hubs in Barcelona, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo.

How significant is the announcement for the region? Stacey Patterson, UT Vice President for Research, Economic Development and Outreach, and John Hopkins, Chief Executive Officer of IACMI, offer an important perspective in this co-authored guest column.

On Friday, VW announced its next Global Innovation Center Hub in a ceremony at the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Advanced Materials located on UT’s Cherokee Farm Innovation campus. As the largest passenger vehicle manufacturer in the world, VW’s global innovation strategy includes regional centers in four continents, and the Hub in East Tennessee is the first in North America since they opened their innovation center in Silicon Valley more than 20 years ago. 

The Engineering and Innovation Center California was established just one bay bridge north of Palo Alto to support new mobility innovation across VW’s global brands.  These brands include stalwarts such as Audi, Porsche, and Bentley, and are as familiar to the world as VW itself. 

Tennessee is also a globally-known and trusted partner for automotive manufacturing, with major OEMS and their suppliers producing more than 1 million vehicles a year and employing more than 100,000 Tennesseans.  VW Group North America’s journey in east Tennessee started with prospecting a decade ago and has quickly evolved from the first customer Passat off the Chattanooga production line in 2011, to the Atlas in 2017, to the recently started expansion of the Chattanooga complex to support the shifting trend to electrification.

As VW’s Chattanooga operations have evolved, the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have also been working to meet innovation and workforce challenges in mobility and manufacturing.  The UT-Battelle relationship has created joint institutes, joint faculty programs, Governors Chairs, and strong connections with national manufacturing innovation institutes, including IACMI – The Composites Institute, whose national headquarters are co-located with the ORNL Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) on ORNL’s Hardin Valley Campus.  These national assets, related programs, and partnerships with other regional assets such as the community colleges and industry have helped inform and grow the focus on local and national needs in manufacturing.

The VW Innovation Hub will provide a vibrant environment for collaboration on these challenges.  Faculty, students, and other researchers will be informed on current and emerging needs and will work with engineers to address them. VW engineers will pursue impactful programs of study and research projects that not only align with technical needs, but also their career path.  This integration of innovation and workforce development is as powerful as the collaboration space in which it occurs.  This next step starts with a handful of staff, similar to the beginning size of Innovation Center California, which now has more than 200.  Over time, our Hub will grow, and the network of relationships and community it creates will drive new opportunities, just as the first thought of a VW Chattanooga production plant had the whisper of the potential of a related innovation center. 

The timing of this next step is more critical to Tennessee than could have been anticipated then, or even five years ago.  Personal mobility is rapidly adopting CASE (Connected, Autonomous, Shared, Electric).  The adoption of new technologies in automotive production is accelerating at a pace never experienced.  Any one of these could turn the industry upside down, and it is one of the reasons Tesla has a market valuation greater than GM and Ford combined.  VW and a major sector of the Tennessee economy will see unprecedented challenges in the upcoming decades as mobility is redefined.  When CASE completely upends supply chains and demands insertion of new innovation in materials and manufacturing processes, who is going to train the future engineers and supporting STEM workforce, what models will be used to provide experiential learning to these students, and how will discovery and innovation be part of their path? 

VW will be relying on its global innovators and education partners to maintain its market leadership, and UT, ORNL, and the region are plugged in and powered up for the challenge.


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