(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a two-part series that is the result of a recent interview with John Hopkins, a long-time University of Tennessee employee and currently the Interim Chief Executive Officer of IACMI.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
It was about three years ago that then President Barack Obama announced a $70 million grant, supplemented by nearly $200 million in other public and private commitments, to launch the nation’s fifth national manufacturing hub in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region.
Named the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), the partnership involving major research institutions, states and corporations has just crossed the midpoint in its five-year initial journey. It was officially launched in June 2015 to join what were then four other centers, now totaling 14, and to focus on composite materials and processes, compressed gas storage, and wind turbines.
Having reached the halfway point in its initial funding and with a new leader, we thought it was a good time to provide our readers with an update on the progress that is being made. So, we sat down before the end of 2017 with John Hopkins, IACMI’s Interim Chief Executive Officer, and posed these questions: what has been accomplished and what’s in the organization’s future?
“We’re making good progress,” he said, citing everything from the numerous IACMI partnerships to new initiatives in participating states including the recently announced Composites Coalition focused on Tennessee.
In his characteristic manner, Hopkins says, “We’re looking to accomplish most of our goals in five years.” Success, however, depends on strategically leveraging assets and partners in ways that solve big problems.
Key building blocks for IACMI locally are the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility and Carbon Fiber Technology Facility operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but several new facilities have emerged in other participating states. Those major investments include the recently opened $50 million lightweighting research and development lab in the Corktown area of Detroit that IACMI and LIFT (Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow), a sister manufacturing hub, are sharing, and another $50 million facility – the Indiana Manufacturing Institute – based in the Purdue Research Park.
“Tens of millions of dollars have been invested by our partners in these connected facilities,” Hopkins explains. Now, the focus is clearly on utilizing these world-class centers to address key challenges in making composites faster while using less embedded energy and also improving recyclability.
“We’re working with our industrial partners to change the marketplace, particularly with respect to carbon fiber composites.” Hopkins said. The strategy involves a select group of key projects led by a key IACMI member but with involvement from others.
“We’re getting into the meat of those industry projects,” Hopkins says. “Ultimately, you need OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and Tier 1s (direct suppliers to OEMs) working together to be successful.”
Michelman is leading one of those recently announced initiatives, in this case a project focused on the optimization of vinyl ester resins and fiber sizings for the fabrication of carbon fiber composites. There’s a list of some of the other top priorities on the IACMI website
Hopkins notes that the challenge is not just on the technology side. There’s also the matter of a qualified and well-trained employee base to work in these new or enhanced factories.
“To turn the industry on its head, you have to be cognizant of workforce development,” he says. In that vein, IACMI has a variety of summer internship programs and also offers advanced composites online training course for its members.
As far as the impact of IACMI’s work today and over the next two plus years, Hopkins takes a long-term view, consistent with the thoughts he expressed in the first article in this series.
“You have to have an understanding of and commitment to long-term returns,” he says. “It (success) takes an extended, persistent commitment.”