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Accelerating the digital thread in advanced manufacturing: Tom Kurfess

Topic: Clean Energy
  • Tom Kurfess, pictured with MedUSA, a next generation advanced manufacturing machine that combines additive, subtractive and tooling applications in one seamless system.

  • Tom Kurfess is chief manufacturing officer for DOE’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at ORNL, where he leads initiatives in digital manufacturing.

  • Tom Kurfess, pictured with MedUSA, a next generation advanced manufacturing machine that combines additive, subtractive and tooling applications in one seamless system.

  • Tom Kurfess is chief manufacturing officer for DOE’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at ORNL, where he leads initiatives in digital manufacturing.

Tom Kurfess, ORNL’s chief manufacturing officer and senior distinguished scientist for manufacturing, knows one pace: fast. He speaks with an enthusiasm that matches his rapid cadence. He’s an innovator, always thinking not where science and technology are today, but where they will be in the next five years, even the next minute.

Formerly the HUSCO/Ramirez Distinguished Chair Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, ORNL tapped Kurfess for the newly created role of chief manufacturing officer. He arrived on the job at DOE’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) in January 2019. The MDF is the nation’s only large-scale, open-access facility for rapidly demonstrating early stage research and development manufacturing technologies.

Already, he’s looking at equipment recently installed in the high bay of the expanded MDF on ORNL’s Hardin Valley campus. He predicts this equipment won’t be there in less than five years.

“I don’t want the same systems here year after year,” he said. “I want the latest technology. We’re going to work with industry, so they know exactly how to utilize that technology. Once we help them develop a system, it’s out the door. Our job is to help industry transmit technology; to build up. Let’s grow together.”

- Tom Kurfess

White House perspective

Kurfess is an expert on program growth. Most of the success the United States has experienced in advanced manufacturing, including at ORNL, can be attributed to a job he was named to in 2012 -- assistant director for advanced manufacturing at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. 

Kurfess was given a one-year appointment to steer the national conversation on advanced manufacturing, working with departments within government such as Defense, Labor and Education, to strengthen manufacturing resources for the good of the nation and economy.

“Every area within government had their own ideas about what advanced manufacturing was and how they could use it,” he said. “My job was to identify all the gaps in federal research and development in advanced manufacturing, fill those gaps and then figure out how all agencies can mesh together in a tight-knit operation.”

Today, advanced manufacturing is a key driver for U.S. industry and work force development. Since opening in 2012, the MDF alone has worked with more than 170 industry partners to date, spurring economic growth on a local, regional and national level.

“We really helped change the direction for manufacturing and got the sector going,” he said. “It was a team effort, working across all agencies. Everyone saw clearly how advanced manufacturing was important for national security, the nation and jobs.”

National lab role

Kurfess says his Washington, D.C., experience made clear the valuable role national labs like ORNL play in helping industry achieve success in advanced manufacturing.

“One thing we haven’t done well on a national scale is leverage our national labs,” he said. “No institute can do what a national lab can do. You won’t find anything else that compares as far as scientific knowledge, technology and resources. National labs are our nation’s gems and we can utilize them more. Just look at the energy at the MDF and what we’ve accomplished so far and think what we can do within the next year.” 

Answering that call is one of the primary reasons Kurfess chose to join the manufacturing team at ORNL. He sees the lab as the perfect blend of facilities and people. 

“When you walk on the campus, you think, wow, what tremendous facilities, but it’s the people, like the team at MDF, that have the vision,” he said. “With this combination, we have an incredible opportunity to move the needle for the nation.”

Internet of Things, 5G, and more

Kurfess expects to spend his first six months on the job leveraging current research, advancing it, and then tying that research in with the right people and industry contacts.

“We can spin up and really elevate what’s happening at the MDF,” he said. “We’re hiring more people to really make sure we have the right personnel in place and then we’re going to tie into areas and get them going in a certain direction so that we have a very strong foundation. We’ll be identifying gaps and filling them in.”

Two focus areas in the near term for him are digital manufacturing and data analytics. 

“It really comes down to standardizing and how do we communicate with the machines, how do you build smart sensors that communicate in both a secure and efficient manner,” Kurfess said. “This gets into the Internet of Things (IoT). We already have the technology, the foundation, but how do we utilize it more effectively and precisely? That’s what we have to move to.”

Investigating IoT also prepares for the inevitable expansion to the final phase of a 5G data network nationwide. Data communication across the nation is largely 4G; 5G is expected to provide unprecedented speed and data transfer, opening the door to significant advantages and opportunities.

“The real issue is can we be prepared for that; this is very important in terms of competitiveness, for the country and for anybody really,” Kurfess said. “I think you are ready when you have an understanding of your data analytics and your digital discipline within your digital factory; you know your process models and are ready to launch into action when 5G rolls out.”

Digital discipline is a term Kurfess refers to frequently in conversation. In fact, he says he’s working to coin the phrase so that its significance is understood throughout the MDF and the manufacturing community.

“It’s the basis in which we take data and provide predictable models; we understand our product and our processing better,” he said. “This is what really drives us towards lowering cost and improving quality. We want to provide precise measurements and procedures and best practices with the right digital framework.”

Another manufacturing advancement Kurfess expects to see continue is the move to hybrid machines that provide additive and subtractive capabilities. A hybrid machine has already been installed at the MDF and Kurfess says with fellow ORNL new hire Scott Smith, who leads the newly formed Machine and Machine Tool Research group, he anticipates hybrid machines will eventually replace additive systems.

“We’re going to have accuracy in tooling the first time and I expect hybrid tooling will be the leading edge of this effort,” he said.

Back to basics

Kurfess, whose academic career spans Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Tech and Clemson University, says he’s not typical of academia. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumnus has served as the BMW Chair of Manufacturing at the Clemson University – International Center for Automotive Research, where his primary role was to launch the center as well as define its research and workforce development directions.

“I spent a lot of time in production at BMW,” he said. “You have to understand the manufacturing process first.”

The importance of learning a process from start to finish started long ago for Kurfess, as a young boy sweeping the floors of his father’s machine shop in Chicago. 

“My friends were off playing ball in the summertime or on weekends and I was in the machine shop, learning about machining. When I learned trigonometry as a freshman in high school, I was programming the numerical control machine tools,” he said. “It was the best field training I could have to be an engineer. My dad would bring home a blueprint and we had to compute things and my siblings and I turned them into a competition and as a result, all three of us became engineers.”

Taking an idea from concept to reality never grows old, Kurfess said, and that’s what engineering and advanced manufacturing have allowed him to do.

“So many success stories from industry have come out of national labs like ORNL,” he said. “It’s as exciting as watching a beautiful sunrise and for me, a very early morning person, there’s nothing better than a sunrise—but advanced manufacturing comes close. Of course, watching the sunrise from the MDF with my colleagues is about as good as it gets!”

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit