(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a two-part series describing Mac5 Technical Services in Oak Ridge and the way it is addressing client needs by engaging a team of seasoned Oak Ridge researchers.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“We have essentially become the R&D department for clients who cannot afford their own,” Richard Macon, President of Mac5 Technical Services LLC, says of the company that has its lab in a non-descript strip mall in Oak Ridge.
In addition to Macon, the team includes three seasoned researchers with a combined 110 years of experience. They are Roland Seals, former Chief R&D Technical Consultant and Senior Scientist at Y-12; Vinod Sikka, former Manager of Research and Technology Development at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL); and Neal Evans, a materials science specialist. Taylor Prince, the company’s chemical engineer, earned his B.S. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute four years ago.
The team meets every Friday morning to review existing projects as well as new opportunities, and we joined that discussion recently to learn more about the work they do and the approach they take.
“We’re all about innovation,” Seals says. “The literature is full of everything one needs to know. They (Mac5’s clients) just don’t have time to look at it.”
Anyone who is involved in manufacturing no doubt understands that reality. So, as Sikka explains, it’s helping take more than a century of knowledge gained through work in various laboratories and applying it to today’s problems.
“From an R&D perspective, we have enough background to address any materials or manufacturing issue and anything in between,” says Seals, the first of the four to join Macon. “If we need additional expertise, we have our own networks.”
Macon notes that a number of retirees are interested in still being engaged. In fact, that is the way the R&D team came together. There was a project that required expertise that Sikka had. As needs grew, Prince and Evans joined.
“We had been developing a corrosion solution for a company that needed scale-up for commercial implementation,” Macon said of the project for a local manufacturer. “Recently, we were asked by our client to modify the corrosion preventing formula for an alternate application method. They also asked us to design a system for application by the alternate method.”
The work involved not only designing the corrosion solution at the Mac5 laboratory in Oak Ridge, but also identifying companies that could scale-up the lab results for commercial scale production. Mac5 researchers actively participated in the commercial scale trials.
“Now, with a solution, Mac5 has been tasked with the economic analysis of the entire process,” Macon says. “We have also been tasked by our client to look at markets in other sectors that could use this or variations of this corrosion solution.”
Mac5 is also developing other coatings and treatments for many different manufacturing applications. Some of the initial treatments are undergoing pilot scale trials in different manufacturing plants.
This project clearly underscores the approach that Mac5 takes in working with clients. Starting with what Sikka describes as “benchtop innovation,” a solution has to be developed and then validated. Sometimes that is simple, but other times it is not.
“We had one process that worked great in the lab, but not when we tried to scale it,” Seals explains. “We had to go back and make modifications. When we have a development where we are solving a problem, we also have the opportunity to see how you implement it.”
Timely responsiveness is another key characteristic of the Mac5 R&D team. “We received an inquiry yesterday from a company with 31 plants that had an issue,” Sikka told us during the interview. “We were able to say within a day, ‘I think we can solve it. Let’s talk.’ You have an idea today, we can discuss and get you a prototype tomorrow.”
Macon is mindful of growing too far or too fast. “We don’t want to get too far from our roots,” he says.
Yet, knowing researchers as I do from my two previous careers at the University of Tennessee and ORNL, that might be a challenge. It was obvious that the R&D team was having a lot of fun.