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Research center aims to give Virginia a manufacturing edge

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Posted: Monday, November 12, 2012 1:39 pm | Updated: 2:04 pm, Mon Nov 12, 2012.

In a quiet, wooded setting just off West Quaker Road in Prince George County, a new research facility has opened where scientists and engineers will collaborate on the future of cutting-edge manufacturing technology.

Named the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, or CCAM, the not-for-profit center is bringing together researchers from the public and private sectors to work on projects that include making jet engines operate more efficiently and developing better techniques for building precision machinery with calibrations less than the width of a human hair.

Standing in the 16,000-square-foot "high bay" area of the research center, CCAM's executive director, Dave Lohr, pointed out that the cavernous space was designed to function like a typical modern factory floor. It is equipped to house and test the latest high-tech manufacturing equipment.

"This space is designed exactly the way you would see it if you went to any modern, advanced manufacturing factory," Lohr said, noting that Rolls-Royce North America's nearby plant has a similar factory floor where the company makes aircraft-engine components.

"This is where we are actually testing new technology at a commercial scale," he said.

That's important for the companies that have partnered to support CCAM, because "when we test technology here, we are taking the scale-up risk out of it," said Lohr, the former director of the Virginia Biosciences Development Center who was named executive director of CCAM in 2011, when the center was still being planned.

"If it works here, then you know it is going to work in the factory, because it is the same scale."

Sparked by Rolls-Royce's investment in Prince George, CCAM has attracted a consortium of more than a dozen private-sector companies so far.

Lohr's goal is to get 25 to 30 companies involved in the consortium in the next year or two, but even more could join eventually.

Scientists and engineers from Virginia State University, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech will do research for CCAM, both at the center and on their own campuses, operating under a single master-research agreement.

The intellectual property agreement also is an unusual step for a research partnership. Under the agreement, all of the intellectual property will belong to CCAM and its member companies, some of which are devoting staff to the center.

In October, VSU announced that five of its faculty members will support CCAM research efforts in surface engineering and manufacturing systems.

Two of the faculty members will work directly at the CCAM facility, while three will split time between CCAM and VSU.

CCAM is one of a growing number of similar R&D centers in the United States that represent a paradigm shift in how manufacturing research is conducted, Lohr said.

"This idea of having universities and companies collaborating through research institutes is starting to take root, really around the world," Lohr said.

Lohr noted that a similar collaborative research center has been developed in Greenville, S.C., by Clemson University, BMW and several other companies, focusing on automotive technology.

In August, the Obama administration announced that the federal government would provide $30 million to develop a national manufacturing innovation center in Youngstown, Ohio, devoted to developing 3-D printing technology. A consortium of private companies and colleges is contributing $40 million to the center.

In Virginia, CCAM also has received significant public support.

The building is owned by the University of Virginia Foundation. Construction was financed with a $2.5 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, a $4 million grant from the federal government's economic development administration, and a portion of $15 million in state recovery-act bonds.

Private-sector supporters also are contributing.

The idea for the center was born when Rolls-Royce announced plans to open a $500 million aircraft-engine components plant in Prince George.

The company wanted to develop a collaborative research center modeled after other R&D sites it has supported in the United Kingdom.

Rolls-Royce donated 20 acres near its 1,000-acre plant in the Crosspointe Centre for CCAM.

That's enough land that the center can expand in the future, Lohr said.

"We want it to become a research campus" that will also include a workforce development center, he said.

Manufacturers increasingly depend on high-tech research to maintain their competitiveness, said Brett Vassey, president and chief executive officer of the Virginia Manufacturers Association.

A center like CCAM "is one of many solutions that Virginia needs to have" to remain attractive to manufacturers.

"It is not just a Virginia asset," he said. "Because of the nature of research there … it is a global center — the only one of its kind in Virginia."

And CCAM has the potential to lead to more jobs in Virginia's manufacturing sector, Vassey said.

Private companies that have joined the consortium as Tier 1 members have each pledged $400,000 annually to support the center, along with providing equipment and other research support.

Other companies that have joined as Tier 2 members provide $100,000 a year in support, while Tier 3 members provide $150,000 in in-kind research support.

Canon Virginia Inc., for example, joined the consortium as one of its original, organizing members. The company has donated office equipment and research equipment to the center.

"CCAM has been able to establish a collaborative research partnership energized by the business and university communities," said Ron Briggs, senior vice president at Canon and a member of CCAM's board of directors. "A productive environment such as this could never be created and thrive independently, making it a great investment for Canon."

Because CCAM also is planning to offer research and training opportunities for college students, it also "provides a pipeline of potential job candidates as university students gain valuable experience working on advanced manufacturing techniques," Briggs said.

The 60,000-square-foot building opened its doors in September, and some research work already has started.

For example, several companies that have joined CCAM as partners have agreed to collaborate on research focused on improving surface-coatings technology, which is used to protect various types of engines and equipment from intense heat or friction. That research could be useful in the aerospace, automotive and energy industries.

For that research, engineers at the center are using a plasma sprayer donated by Sulzer Metco, a Swiss industrial engineering and manufacturing firm.

The plasma sprayer, housed in a large machine operated by computer controls, heats various types of coatings to more than 20,000 degrees and applies them to surfaces.

Kevin Ramlal, a project manager for Sulzer, has been assigned to work at CCAM on research projects. Other engineers have joined the CCAM staff, such as Ben Zimmerman, who formerly worked at aerospace company Pratt & Whitney.

Zimmerman said he joined the CCAM staff because "it is a small place just starting up. We can make a difference and do things quickly."

"In the not so distant past, a lot of companies had significant R&D facilities" of their own, Zimmerman said. "But you have seen a trend over the last 10 years where those have been cut back."

"We (CCAM) are a low-cost source to do this kind of (research), as opposed to a legacy facility," he said.

Another area of research focus for CCAM is manufacturing systems, which deals with the conceptualization, design, production and service of manufactured parts.

Other companies are donating various types of equipment for research at CCAM.

One part of the high bay area, for example, houses CCAM's metrology center, where precision measurements of manufactured parts are taken.

That area of the plant is dominated by a large greenhouselike enclosed space that contains a machine donated by Mitutoyo America Corp., one of the world's largest makers of precision measuring instruments. The machine can measure the dimensions of parts up to four decimal places.

"To do that, though, you have got to have it in a temperature-controlled room," Lohr said, explaining why the machine is housed in an enclosed space of its own.

By the time the center is fully outfitted during the next few months with donated equipment, the total investment in the center is expected to exceed $30 million.

Besides the high bay area, the center also has a 3-D visualization lab that, while not yet fully equipped, will ultimately enable engineers to do three-dimensional digital design and modeling.

One large part of the facility is devoted to scientific offices, "except they are not offices," Lohr said.

Rather, the scientific office space was designed with an open floor plan much like a large meeting hall, with movable filing cabinets that double as portable chairs, and floor-to-ceiling windows that provide natural light and look out onto a wooded area.

The idea behind the design, Lohr said, is to "foster communication and innovation."

The center also has a large conference room where companies can hold training meetings.

The goal, Lohr said, is to move new ideas and new technology as quickly as possible into the marketplace. Collaborating at a jointly funded research center helps companies stretch their R&D funding and reduce risk, he said.

"Just look at how high-tech your automobile is now," Lohr said. "Innovation is accelerating. With that kind of technological advancement going on, you just can't afford to go it alone. You have got to respond to the external environment in a way that is affordable and fast."

jblackwell@timesdispatch.com(804) 775-8123

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