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UTK wins inaugural SEC machining competition

By Shannon Smith, Teknovation Assistant Editor, PYA

Universities across the country compete in all kinds of national championships. Most of them are for sports.

“I want to have a national championship in machining,” said Dr. Tony Schmitz, Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT), and Joint Faculty Member at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). “So first, we’ll begin with the SEC. I want to grow it to the power five conferences. And then on like the Monday before the national championship football game, I want to have the national machining championship.”

That dream started Friday, with the inaugural 2022 Project MFG SEC Machining Competition hosted by UT Knoxville at its new Manufacturing and Design Enterprise location in the old Local Motors building in Hardin Valley.

The purpose of this competition is to convene Southeastern Conference (SEC) university teams to promote advanced manufacturing education and training, learn more about CNC machining, and demonstrate each team’s capabilities.

Four SEC schools competed in this machining event, including engineering students from Auburn University, Mississippi State University, Texas A&M University, and UT Knoxville. They were each tasked with machining one quarter of the SEC logo, which was then assembled as a whole with each team’s work.

“I’ve been thrilled with these teams, being able to take a model, come here and execute on a machine they’ve never seen to make a part that we’re then going to fit together. It’s been wonderful,” said Schmitz.

UT Knoxville took home the win based on time, cost, and quality of their work.

“On the student side, they get to learn from one another,” said Schmitz. “They get to see how the other students solve the same problem, which has been really cool because nobody did it the same way. From the industry side, this is a talent pool that they want to tap into.”

Several companies, including familiar names like ORNL, Y-12 National Security Complex, and IACMI – The Composites Institute, were all there ready to recruit students to work for them.

“What we heard from everyone who’s here is, ‘we are here to hire.’ This is a recruiting event and that’s, by and large, why they showed,” said Schmitz.

Schmitz and the leaders of the competing machining teams said it’s important to get more American talent trained in the world of manufacturing.

“You know, a lot of times when people talk about workforce, what they mean is the people that run the equipment. And that’s really important,” said Schmitz. “We also need to think about the people that are going to design the next equipment and set up the processes on that equipment, so the engineering side is also important. That’s what we’re focused on here is the engineering side of manufacturing as it relates to machinery.”

Sam Snell and Scott Neff are two mechanical engineering Ph.D. students at Auburn who coached those undergraduate students for this competition.

Neff echoes Schmitz’s sentiments on the importance of bringing manufacturing back to the United States, and not relying so much on foreign help.

“The pandemic kind of causing a breakdown in the supply chain really highlighted to manufacturers the importance of bringing that supply chain back to the U.S. in a way that they can be more involved and have a little bit more direct control over to ensure that we maintain production here in the States,” he said.

Training young engineers on using the tools necessary is a big step in fixing that gap.

“Frankly, these students got a little bit of an accelerated learning curve here because of this competition,” said Snell. “So it added a lot, not only for manufacturing and education as a whole but for the students themselves.”

Schmitz said eight SEC schools have already committed to compete in next year’s machining competition.

UT Knoxville wins the inaugural SEC Machining Competition. Credit: UTORII

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