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October 02, 2019 | Tom Ballard

Tony Skjellum shares vision, activities for UTC’s SimCenter

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

“We want to take research out to the world, but also be a tiny Bell Labs for Chattanooga and the region,” says Tony Skjellum, Director of the SimCenter at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC).

Noting the 17-year old multi-disciplinary program was re-inaugurated in 2017 around the time of his arrival, the well-respected researcher is now playing a major leadership role in helping build his fourth university-based collaborative research center. Skjellum came to UTC from Auburn University after previous stops at the University of Alabama Birmingham and Mississippi State University.

“I enjoy putting people together to solve problems,” he told us during a recent interview. Naturally, after being at three Southeastern Conference universities where research is a top priority, we wondered about the factors that caused him to move to UTC.

“It was an opportunity to help build research capacity here,” Skjellum explained, emphasizing the commitment that Chancellor Steven Angle has voiced for that goal and the important role a revitalized SimCenter plays. “It was a bigger opportunity to use my skills and help others.”

Noting that he has found UTC faculty “hungry” for opportunities to collaborate much more with industry, Skjellum says the end result is to “make real-world impacts . . . a hallmark of UTC’s vision.”

One should note, however, that it is not just faculty members that are on Skjellum’s radar. It is also UTC students who can become engaged in research projects coming through the SimCenter. The end result has specific upsides for both the participating companies and the students.

“It de-risks talent acquisition because the students have worked on the companies’ projects and those companies see their skills first-hand,” Skjellum notes.

Prior to meeting the SimCenter Director at the facility on M.L. King Boulevard, we had conducted an earlier interview with the three-time graduate of California Institute of Technology when our focus was on this recent article spotlighting work the SimCenter was conducting with IMSA. The start-up, which is currently deploying a beta version of its software that provides real-time information to manage the known and unexpected risks faced by these large vessels on the high seas, is working with the SimCenter on future enhancements to the product.

Skjellum cites the work for IMSA as an example of what he hopes to accomplish in bringing more collaboration with industry to UTC faculty and students. “We want to bring interesting problems to them,” he says, describing the approach of the SimCenter as being a “trusted adviser helping companies think, experiment, and take risks. We want to be a strategic piece in small company growth in Chattanooga.”

That’s exactly the approach the SimCenter is taking with IMSA. While the start-up’s corporate headquarters is in South Florida, the company selected Chattanooga for the Operations Center because of the city’s well-known gigabit network and the capabilities at the SimCenter.

“We try to make the university easy to understand,” Skjellum explains. “We want to win together.”

An expert in high-performance computing (HPC), the SimCenter Director is also an entrepreneur, serving as Chief Technology Officer at RunTime Computing Solutions LLC, a firm Skjellum and his wife, Jennifer, founded a decade ago. She is the firm’s President.

With that background and the SimCenter’s decade-long history, it is only natural that an emphasis on HPC-related activities would be a core part of Skjellum’s vision for the future. One aspect of that is something called the digital twin, a term that was unfamiliar to us,

“It’s the hottest topic in manufacturing right now,” Skjellum explained. “It (the term) has existed for years, but you could not afford the computational power to be able to use it until now.”

So, what exactly is it? Skjellum drew an analogy with the long-standing flight simulators that allow pilots to train on new airplanes without actually flying an existing aircraft.

A recent article in Industry Week described the applications for a digital twin this way: “Companies use these digital twins to understand their world better by modeling different scenarios, with a goal of making proactive instead of reactive decisions. They do this by running simulations and what-if scenarios within the digital twin, and using the results to improve operations and employee skills. Manufacturers tend to use digital twins to improve operations such as plant processes, and to optimize supply chains.”

As he visualizes ways for the SimCenter to impact both the research and the applications arenas, Skjellum says “the science of digital twins is a greenfield.” That’s the sort of challenge he relishes.

“We’re a non-profit think tank,” he says. “We’re open to all sorts of ways to work with industry.”

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