Holding a large pair of scissors, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell hailed the new, state-of-the-art, 62,000-square-foot research facility operated by the still-growing Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM) as “a pivotal moment for America’s global competitiveness” during its grand opening ceremony earlier this year.
Here’s why, in his words: “Companies that take the important step to join the CCAM research center in the Commonwealth of Virginia become partners of a one-of-a-kind asset in the U.S. – one that drives competitive advantage in the rapidly-transforming advanced manufacturing segment of our nation’s economy. The innovations produced at CCAM are cutting-edge, and the new facility will further Virginia as a hub for advanced manufacturing technology and high-skill jobs in the 21st century.”
That’s quite the pat-on-the-back for a public-private partnership that’s less than five years in age.
But Dr. Mike Beffel, executive director for CCAM, says his organization, founded in 2011, is really that impressive, even at its young age, as is its new home in Disputanta, Va., just south of Richmond in Prince George County.
Completed in late 2012, the technologically-advanced complex features computational and engineering research labs, a 16,000-square-foot high-bay production space for commercial scale equipment, and all of the must-have, state-of-the-art tools and equipment needed for in-depth research in surface engineering and advanced manufacturing systems.
That equipment ranges from high-tech coating equipment provided by Sulzer to robotic microfusion layering capabilities supplied by Chromalloy, Beffel says, adding the facility has additional advanced manufacturing and measuring capabilities, including high-performance blast equipment and CMMs.
Think integrated data acquisition systems, Die-Dink EDM cutting machine, laser power deposition, 5-axis cutting, and thermal spray coating cells. This center has it all.
“The neat thing about much of this equipment is that it’s supplied by member companies and, typically, it’s on loan to us,” says Beffel, who also serves as vice president of casting operations for Chromalloy. “The equipment is on loan until (the members) can sell it, and once they sell it, they take it away at no cost. But then they put in a newer model at no cost. Therefore, CCAM always has the latest, greatest, newest type of equipment to develop new processes and technologies.”
Construction of the facility, owned by the University of Virginia Foundation, was reportedly financed via a $4 million federal grant, a $2.5 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, and $11 million in state recovery-act bonds, plus various private-sector contributions.
“To our knowledge there is no other research organization in North America that is focused solely on surface engineering and advanced manufacturing systems,” Beffel says.
How It All Started
The idea behind the organization reportedly jumpstarted after Rolls-Royce, the world-renowned global power systems company, invested $500 million to open an aircraft-engine components plant in Prince George County near the end of the last decade.
The company then donated 20 acres adjacent to its 1,000-acre Crosspointe aerospace plant to CCAM. The idea, Beffel says, was to build an ultra-modern facility that would house a collaborative research group focused on “improving the technical capability and the research capability in this part of the country.”
Beffel says that meant narrowing down precisely what the organization wanted to be masterful in.
“When we got the group that was originally talking about CCAM as a conceptual organization together, we decided that we didn’t want to be a jack of all trades and a master of none,” Beffel recalls. “We wanted to pick a couple of areas that we could specialize in. If you look at the two areas that we chose, they cross an incredibly diverse amount of industry sectors.
Take, for instance, one of those specialties: surface engineering, which alters material surfaces to provide properties not originally inherent in the material. Numerous industries – automotive, aerospace, energy, electronics, biomedical, textile, petroleum, materials manufacturing, and construction, just to name a few – all have surface engineering needs.
“Think about the physics of figuring out how to prep a ship out in service that needs welds repaired, the physics of prepping a surface for a new part that goes into an advanced turbine engine, and the physics of coating a piece of equipment that gets put into an appliance,” Beffel says. “The physics are the same, but the applications are wide, diverse, and varied. Fundamentally figuring out the problems of getting the surface ready to be worked on are the same in multiple industries.”
Advanced manufacturing systems – which integrate processes associated with the conceptualization, design, production, and service of manufactured parts – are also instrumental across an assortment of industries, he says. CCAM helps increase product integrity, competitiveness, performance, and time-to-market.
“Human factors engineering applies to all of the different industries. So does the fact that we have people who have performed their jobs better than their coworkers,’ he explains. “If you use analytics to track the human motions that discern an extremely competent employee from an average one, then we can start to put some analytics into why employee A is so much better at what they do than the average, and start training everybody to move the average up.”
Consequently, the center gives member companies a fully-equipped tool belt in better developing their talent. “We want to bring people in, get them assigned to projects, and then export them into member companies, so that we’re continually providing a stream of talent into all organizations and industries.”
Capitalizing On A Trend
The high-tech machinery and equipment at the center are used mostly by engineers and scientists from three Virginia-based, post-secondary institutions: Virginia State University, the University of Virginia, and Virginia Tech, all of whom do research either at the facility or on their campuses.
“What separates CCAM from the other research organizations that have preceded CCAM is the manner in which we handle intellectual property,” Beffel says. “The intellectual property that is created here falls into two categories: pre-competitive – or what we call generic research – which is owned by CCAM but shared by all of its members, and directive research – or proprietary research – which is when intellectual property is owned only by the company that’s funding the research.”
In this low-risk type of environment, he adds, manufacturers and industrialists repeatedly bounce ideas and research off one another “without being worried that their competitors will gain access to their research through publications.”
It’s this type of secure researching environment that convinced the NASA Langley Research Center to join CCAM as the organization’s first government affiliate earlier this year. The two organizations together help create more opportunities for joint participation in research and development of new surface engineering technologies and manufacturing systems. Research is done either at the CCAM headquarters or at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
“They’re very, very complementary in research capabilities to what we do,” Beffel says of NASA Langley. “They’ve been here several times and we’ve been to their facility several times. It looks like a right-hand, left-hand perfect glove match between the two organizations.”
About 50 student interns from the CCAM’s participating universities now work alongside manufacturing experts in several research areas at the new facility and in labs around Virginia. That figure – and others – is expected to swell.
At the center’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in March, CCAM officials reportedly laid out a comprehensive five-year plan that includes bringing on 50 researchers, 35 graduate research partners, 30 industrial members, and developing $20 million annual research budget. The center is reportedly involved in 10 projects valued around $1.7 million, and the research behind these projects may be utilized by up to 14 members.
“One trend that’s apparent is that more and more companies are reaching out to other companies that have similar areas of interest but are in different competitive markets,” he says.
For instance, he says, a decade or two ago, officials at an automotive company likely would not have exchanged ideas or insight with researchers at a non-automotive company. But that’s changed.
“Now we want to talk to everybody in other industries because there are a lot of very smart people who have solved similar problems to what we have in our industry, with a unique perspective that could be applied to ours,” he explains. “That’s really driving a lot of technology capability and innovation today.”
That’s what motivates an organization like CCAM.
“We can get a diverse group of companies all together to make advances faster, more economical, and more efficient,” he says. “With the goal of bridging the gap between leading edge research and product development, CCAM will continue to be at the forefront of many new manufacturing processes.”