PART 3: Recruitment of top scientific talent a key factor in the success of the MDF

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a multi-part series focused on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility {MDF} at Oak Ridge National Laboratory {ORNL}, truly one of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region’s greatest technology and innovation assets The first three articles examine the MDF from the perspective of ORNL; the other three spotlight ways that local companies are capitalizing on the facility.)

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) places a premium on recruiting top scientific talent, and several recent appointments involving the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) underscore that emphasis. One is Tom Kurfess, the other is Scott Smith.

Kurfess, ORNL’s Chief Manufacturing Officer and Distinguished Scientist for Manufacturing, arrived this past January with impressive credentials, among them serving as Assistant Director for Advanced Manufacturing in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Prior to that, he had served as the BMW Chair of Manufacturing at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research and came to ORNL from Georgia Institute of Technology where Kurfess served as Professor and HUSCO/Ramirez Distinguished Chair in Fluid Power and Motion Control.

In this recent spotlight article written by ORNL’s Jennifer Burke, Kurfess underscores the rapidly changing nature of the work underway at the MDF. He predicts that the equipment on the floor in the facility today will be either modified, upgraded or replaced in less than five years.

That point underscored one made by MDF Director Bill Peter who described the facility as a “living thing.”

In the article written by Burke, Kurfess said, “I don’t want the same systems here year after year. I want the latest technology. We’re going to work with industry, so they know exactly how to utilize that technology. Once we help them develop a system, it’s out the door. Our job is to help industry transmit technology; to build up.”

Kurfess also cited a key takeaway from his year at the White House that will no doubt shape his tenure at ORNL. “One thing we haven’t done well on a national scale is leverage our national labs,” he said. “No institute can do what a national lab can do.”

Kurfess adds that two of his top priorities are in digital manufacturing and data analytics. “It really comes down to standardizing and how do we communicate with the machines, how do you build smart sensors that communicate in both a secure and efficient manner,” he said.

With the Internet of Things and the evolution into 5G data networks, digital manufacturing is clearly something on the not too distant horizon.

“As we’re developing a toolset for digital discipline, what would take two to three years now takes two to three months Peter says. Imagine the impact on productivity and competitiveness for manufacturers.

Smith, a Tennessee native and Tennessee Tech University graduate, left a 23-year career at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, to become ORNL’s Leader for Machining and Machine Tool Research.

Like Kurfess, he sat down with Burke for a spotlight article where much of his emphasis was on subtractive or machining, not additive technologies. “With the MDF, ORNL has a huge presence in additive equipment,” he told her. “This is the place to be, and I want to be the subtractive guy in additive land.”

Smith outlined “three big themes” required to integrate subtractive capabilities into the world of additive.

“First we focus on how to improve existing machine tools,” he explained. “Then, we begin to design the ideal machine tool, explore what the machines should look like based on the parts we want to make. Finally, we start to build up a workforce that can support our innovation.”

Kurfess and Smith are just two of several recent strategic hires that have moved the MDF headcount from 12 when the facility opened in 2012 to 82 today. They join innovators like Lonnie Love, Group Leader for Manufacturing Systems Research Vlastimil Kunc, Group Leader for Manufacturing Science Research and Ryan DeHoff, Group Leader Deposition Science and Technology.

NEXT:  The first of three articles examining how MDF has made a difference for local companies.

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