Face of the future
Major manufacturers add clout to growing research center
- March 27, 2015
As it rises out of a 20-acre field in rural Prince George County south of Richmond, the sleek, ultramodern Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM) looks out of place, in a futuristic way.
It is the future of manufacturing in America, CCAM’s supporters say, far removed from the dirty and often boring factory jobs of a half-century ago.
Since its inception in 2011, the public-private collaborative research center has made significant gains.
CCAM has grown from seven original members to 28 members, including some of the biggest names in industry and five public universities.
Growth in membership, officials say, is the key to CCAM’s sustainability while providing a larger budget and more engineers and scientists to drive research.
“As membership increases, it allows for more research to be funded and more collaboration,” says Joseph Moody, CCAM’s president and executive director.
Research activity (in dollars) rose 116 percent in 2014, and the number of research projects jumped 60 percent.
CCAM’s staff of about 50 grew about 60 percent during the past year, and the number of university interns continues to rise, with 26 in 2014 — twice as many as 2013 — and 32 interns projected for this year.
The National Governors Association has cited CCAM as a best-practice model, and the Brookings Institution recently noted, “Consortia such as CCAM are breaking the mold and showing how new technology dynamics are motivating companies and their partners to craft creative, new innovation platforms to stay ahead.”
The plaudits and the growing numbers are music to the ears of Will Powers, executive vice president and CFO of Rolls-Royce North America, which donated the land for CCAM in Prince George. Rolls-Royce’s nearby manufacturing facilities make components for jet engines.
“I think we’re getting validation from credible institutions like Brookings and the National Governors Association that this is a good model,” Powers says.
What has surprised him is how quickly the model has taken off. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the blessing of the president of the United States.
President Obama visited the Rolls-Royce plant three years ago as the CCAM research site was being developed, and he had nothing but praise for the concept.
“So, think of this as a place where companies can share access to cutting-edge capabilities,” Obama said of CCAM. “At the same time, students and workers are picking up new skills; they’re training on state-of-the-art equipment; they’re solving some of the most important challenges facing our manufacturers.”
The president called for creating institutes like CCAM across the country to spur a manufacturing renaissance.
Powers says there is another way you can judge CCAM’s progress so far: by the company it keeps. “The proof is in the pudding,” Powers explains. “The arrival of Airbus and Alcoa tells you this concept is valid on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Airbus, the giant France-based aircraft manufacturing company, and New York–based Alcoa, the world’s third-largest producer of aluminum, joined CCAM last year.
Seeking more members
Powers says CCAM is now in a moment of transition, moving from a startup to a more research-driven entity. It also is seeking to add more industry partners — in areas such as automotives, specialty chemicals and electronics.
The strategy is to add members who don’t compete in the marketplace with existing members but who could benefit from robust collaborative research.
In 2014 alone, 37 research projects were underway. The research agenda will expand as new members are added.
The target is for seven new members in 2015. Twelve companies are being recruited, and 27 companies are on CCAM’s list of potential members, according to center officials.
Joel P. Reuter, vice president of communications and marketing services for Rolls-Royce North America, says it’s too early in the process to talk about research breakthroughs for his company at CCAM, adding that much of the research touches on areas of protected intellectual property.
Boon for universities
Engineering schools at Virginia’s public universities have been heavily invested in CCAM and its research since the beginning, especially the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Powers cites U.Va. and Virginia Tech as institutions that gave CCAM its juice. Representatives from the schools toured an advanced research center in Sheffield, England, and offered to bring that back to the U.S. “They imported a model we already loved,” Powers says.
He adds that U.Va. and Virginia Tech had experts in two areas that Rolls-Royce valued highly: surface coatings and manufacturing systems.
The University of Virginia Foundation owns the CCAM building, which was financed by $11 million from state Recovery Act bonds, a $4 million federal grant and $2.5 million from the Virginia Tobacco Commission.
Barry Johnson, senior associate dean of the U.Va. School of Engineering & Applied Science, says the money has been well invested.
“From our perspective, CCAM has already been an outstanding success. We’ve been able to grow out research as a result of the partnership. It’s generated over $12.5 million for the engineering department at U.Va.,” Johnson says.
Four departments at the engineering school have their hand in CCAM research, the U.Va. official says, with faculty members in materials science, system engineering, and mechanical and aerospace engineering all involved.
Johnson says alumni have offered support, including Raymond J. Kilmer, the executive vice president and chief technology officer of one of CCAM’s newest members, Alcoa. “He loves the CCAM model,” Johnson says of Kilmer, who has a doctorate in materials science and engineering from U.Va.
Johnson adds that recent and upcoming graduates also like the idea that universities are stepping out of their traditional model and creating alliances with industry, giving graduates opportunities for internships and possibly job offers.
“Member companies are reaching out directly to our university,” he says. “Prior to CCAM, Canon [a CCAM industry member with Virginia operations in Newport News] didn’t recruit interns at the University of Virginia. Now, they do.”
Jack Lesko, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, says the university’s participation in CCAM sends an unmistakable signal. “We want industry to understand we’re open for business and we want to work with industry,” he says.
Lesko says that, from all the signals he’s seeing, federal investment in advanced manufacturing research will be substantial, as the nation works to rebuild its manufacturing base. Many of those research dollars will be going to universities that have shown an interest and an aptitude in that area.
“We need to focus our faculty hires and faculty development in areas of national needs,” Lesko says. He adds that one of the best ways to know what those needs are is by listening to industry.
Oktay Baysal, dean of the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology at Old Dominion University, says CCAM is something like a language academy for professors and students who learn to speak the language of industry, and learn the realities of business outside the classroom and laboratory. “It’s huge,” Baysal says.
Currently, CCAM is competing for a federal grant to establish an advanced manufacturing academy to train the manufacturing workers of the future.
Last year, the General Assembly committed $25 million in matching funds for the project if it reaches fruition.
Moody, CCAM’s president, says the takeaway from CCAM is that collaboration is a way of leveraging knowledge. “Companies that produce technologies and innovations recognize that they will never have all the knowledge within their four walls to stay on the leading edge.
“They use collaborative research to increase their effective organizational knowledge and stay innovative,” he says. “That’s where CCAM helps them.”
Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing
The industry and government members:
- Aerojet Rocketdyne
- Blaser Swisslube
- Canon Virginia
- Cool Clean Technologies
- GF Machining Solutions
- Hermle Machine Co.
- National Instruments
- NASA Langley Research Center
- Newport News Shipbuilding
- Oerlikon Metco
- Paradigm Precision
- RTI International Metals
- Sandvik Coromant
- Spatial Integrated Systems
- Old Dominion University
- University of Virginia
- Virginia Commonwealth University
- Virginia State University
- Virginia Tech