A new research partnership supports the south's automotive industry.
The group was an auspicious one. Congressional representatives from Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama. Senior management from national laboratories at Oak Ridge and Savannah River as well as the University of Tennessee, Clemson University and BMW. They gathered on a makeshift platform in the Clemson International Center for Automotive Research, a symbol of the South's emergence over the last two decades as a powerhouse in automotive manufacturing. The event, part of the Tennessee Valley Corridor Southeast Partnership, was designed to bring together the region's collective transportation research talent to focus on ways to support continued growth of the automotive industry.
The gathering was symbolic of a growing realization that in matters of economic development, the South has learned the importance of teamwork. In the case of transportation, this regional teamwork has resulted in the cooperation of lawmakers, business leaders and research institutions on a broad array of initiatives, from creating new fuels to helping the world's auto manufacturers build lighter, stronger, more energyefficient cars and trucks. As Peter Brown, associate publisher and editorial director at Automotive News, expressed in a keynote luncheon address to the group of business and government leaders gathered for the Tennessee Valley Corridor event earlier that day, "It is extraordinary coming from the North to see this level of cooperation."
Oak Ridge National Laboratory for years has been the leader in transportation research for the Department of Energy's energy efficiency programs. More recently, the Laboratory has sought to connect to the growing automotive presence in the Southeast. The region is now home to 3,000 automotive suppliers and 10 major automotive assembly plants including Toyota in Kentucky and Mississippi; BMW in South Carolina; Ford in Georgia; Mercedes, Hyundai and Honda in Alabama, as well as Saturn and Nissan—which recently relocated U.S. headquarters to Nashville—in Tennessee.
Surrounding these plants is a set of universities that, along with ORNL, represent extensive expertise in supply chain management, sustainable manufacturing, heavy vehicle research, power electronics, engines and high-performance materials. In 2007, ORNL and the University of Tennessee, along with six southern research universities, announced the Automotive Research Alliance, a regional effort to provide southern automakers access to unique research capabilities.
"We are looking for opportunities to increase and advance automotive research and development in the Southeast and ultimately in the nation," says Ben Ritchey, vice president of the Transportation Marketing Sector at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. Ritchey also serves as acting chief executive officer and president of the National Transportation Research Center Inc., the business developer for ORNL, UT and the other Automotive Research Alliance members.
Ritchey says the Alliance has multiple goals. "We want to motivate the development of new academic programs in university business and engineering departments that stimulate more automotive research," he explains. "We want to introduce new skills to the auto industry, such as computational modeling and simulation. Perhaps above all, we want to focus our research on leading-edge issues." To complement the extensive transportation program at ORNL, the alliance is setting up centers of excellence, established around university partners. A Center of Excellence in Automotive Supply Chain has been launched through the University of Tennessee School of Business and a Center of Excellence in Sustainable Automotive Manufacturing is being led out of the University of Kentucky. Additional centers are in the offing.
"The purpose of the centers of excellence is to have industry contribute financially to the center," Ritchey says. "In exchange for that contribution, industry would select the nonproprietary research on which faculty and graduate and undergraduate students would work. An added benefit is access to students who are potential future hires. There is also the potential for crossover. If someone from Auburn is interested in and skilled in transportation logistics, Tennessee would be interested in including that expert in its own center of excellence. The entire initiative is based on the premise of aligning strengths among the institutions."
Research capabilities outside automakers' own R&D organizations are crucial to development of new technologies and products, says Tom Bologa, vice president of engineering, United States, for BMW of North America. Bologa represented BMW for two panel discussions held during the Tennessee Valley Corridor event and has helped capitalize the Clemson International Center for Automotive Research.
"We absolutely look to the outside because we can't possibly do it all," Bologa says, adding that the Clemson partnership will focus initially on production improvements at BMW's plant in nearby Aiken, S.C., and development of a skilled workforce. Eventually the partnership may broaden to other research challenges more directly related to vehicle performance.
"I can speak for the whole industry when I say energy efficiency is probably 80% of our focus when it comes to developing new technologies," he says. "How are we going to get the greatest energy efficiency possible? That is not going to be one technology. It is going to be a whole variety of things. We don't have the resources to track down all the needs that we have. There are so many things we are working on we just don't have the people to do everything."
On the R&D side, Thomas Kurfess, professor and BMW Chair of Manufacturing at Clemson, says Automotive Research Alliance partners' capabilities will complement each other. He had recently visited the National Transportation Research Center near ORNL where he says he saw several opportunities for collaboration.
"This is not an issue of competing but instead an issue of how we can work together," Kurfess says. "What I've seen is that, when we work together with our supposed competition, we all win. This is not one plus one equals two. The value is much greater. I think there are tremendous opportunities left and right."
Although the South's largest research laboratory, ORNL is not restricting automotive research efforts to the Southeast. The Department of Energy recently announced an initiative headquartered at automotive supplier Delphi Automotive's former R&D center in Detroit that pulls together ORNL, DOE, the Department of Defense and a consortium of automotive suppliers. Called USAutoPARTs, the effort will provide both expertise and facilities to second- and third-tier automotive suppliers, most of which cannot afford a program of in-house research.
"We are most effective as a national laboratory when our research can be applied to real-world problems that provide solutions and practical benefits for the nation's industries," says Ray Boeman, director of the National Transportation Research Center at ORNL. "By making our resources available, ORNL can play a direct role in supporting one of the most important sectors of the American economy." —Larisa Brass
Web site provided by Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Communications and External Relations