HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – Greater research ties between vehicle manufacturers and The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) will result from a regional Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) for vehicle manufacturing that has received a National Science Foundation grant to support its planning.
Lead institution Auburn University and partners UAH and Tennessee Technological University are using the grant to plan the creation of the Southern Alliance for Advanced Vehicle (SAAV) Manufacturing Center. The center will have sites at each campus, and the trio of universities is already in discussions with Clemson University, Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama about possible future expansion.
“A vehicle is anything that transports people or products from one location to another,” said Dr. Phillip Farrington, UAH’s principal investigator and a professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering and Engineering Management. “That would include automobiles, planes, trains, ships, submarines, spacecraft, missiles, unmanned aerial systems and helicopters.”
Regional automotive manufacturing growth is one of the factors driving the need for the SAAV Manufacturing Center. Alabama ranks fourth in the U.S. for automotive exports, with 5.4 billion in exports and auto plants owned by Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama and Navistar International. Regionally, they are joined by Volkswagen, Nissan and General Motors plants in Tennessee; Nissan in Mississippi; a Kia plant located in Georgia just across the border from Auburn; and BMW in South Carolina.
“The South has become a hotbed for automotive manufacturing and we are interested in serving their needs,” Dr. Farrington said. “In addition, Huntsville is a major center for the aerospace industry, another important component in the economy of Alabama that we want to support, as well.”
Familiar names among Huntsville aerospace firms include Dynetics, The Boeing Company, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, among many others. “We’re interested in addressing the manufacturing concerns in those industries, and helping suppliers that support those industries,” Dr. Farrington said. “In the future, we hope to include manufacturing enterprises from Mobile, such as organizations in the shipbuilding industry.”
“The automotive and aerospace industries share common challenges related to manufacturing processes,” said UAH center co-investigator Dr. Farbod Fahimi, assistant professor of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering. “By investing in the new center, they gain access to teams of experts that find solutions to the common challenges, while only paying a portion of the cost of high-caliber research and expertise.”
Core thrust areas for the SAAV Manufacturing Center will include manufacturing systems design; technologies and processes for mass customization, including using lightweight-high strength materials or additive manufacturing; Lean manufacturing and management; data driven approaches for advanced quality control; and occupational safety and ergonomics.
“In our initial meeting with the representatives of the automotive and aerospace industries, we proposed some research thrusts to initiate discussions about their interest,” Dr. Fahimi said. “We collected valuable feedback and suggestions from the representatives, which help us identify their areas of interest. Our next step is to meet with all participating universities to finalize the thrust areas such that they cover the diverse areas of interest of the automotive and aerospace industries.”
Having the center in Alabama helps the manufacturers in the state and it may become an attractor to other manufacturers such as Remington, Dr. Farrington said. “We’re ultimately interested in trying to improve the conditions for manufacturers across the state,” Dr. Farrington said. “In my view, our economic future – in the state, in the region and in the country – is based on our ability to manufacture products. The faculty and staff working to establish this center are trying to help manufacturers in Alabama and the Southeast region, which ultimately helps all of us.”
The lead principle investigator at Auburn is Dr. John Evans, professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering, who graduated from UAH with a master’s degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering before going on to earn a doctorate in the subject. At Tennessee Tech, the principal investigator is Dr. Stephen Canfield, professor of Mechanical Engineering.
At UAH, Dr. Farrington is joined in the center effort by co-investigators Dr. Sherri Messimer, associate professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering and Engineering Management; Dr. Sampson Gholston, associate professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering and Engineering Management; Dr. Fahimi; and Dr. Sara Graves, director of the Information Technology and Systems Center (ITSC).
“The SAAV Manufacturing Center will be a real asset for UAH, industries and government in providing the infrastructure for collaboration to address difficult and real-world problems in various aspects of manufacturing,” said Dr. Graves.
“There will be large volumes of data from various participants with different needs and requirements for usability, availability and security. The ITSC will be a key member of SAAV that will provide data management, data mining and integration, analytics and visualization, and cyber security capabilities to the Center.”
Initial industry response to the SAAV Manufacturing Center has been strong, with over 40 letters of interest gathered among the three educational institutions, more than doubling the 18 minimum required. As part of the planning process under the NSF grant, the universities are now talking with possible industry partners. The planning grant expires in March 2015.
“We are working to develop some common synergies and understandings between the automotive industry and aerospace industry in discussing their manufacturing challenges,” said Dr. Farrington.
“We’re trying to strengthen the collaboration between the Alabama engineering and manufacturing organizations, then reach out to natural regional industry partners to help manufacturers in the state and region. We want to build up a stronger research infrastructure to support the manufacturers in Alabama and throughout the Southeast.”
The SAAV Manufacturing Center’s planning grant follows announcement in February of an NSF grant to plan a center at UAH to focus on advanced composites in transportation vehicles, in collaboration with lead organization Mississippi State University.