UVA Engineering to Help Drive Advances in U.S. Manufacturing

UVA Engineering Joins National Coalition to Promote Smart Manufacturing Technologies

The University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science has earned a place in a new, $140 million coalition aimed at driving technological advances in American manufacturing.

The Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute is part of President Barack Obama’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. The network is comprised of public-private partnerships that are applying research breakthroughs directly to product development, making manufacturing less costly and more competitive in the United States.

UVA Engineering joins nearly 200 partners from more than 30 states to form the new Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute. The institute will be headquartered in California. UVA’s coalition partners span industry, non-profits and universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology and University of California at Berkeley. The U.S. Department of Energy is funding $70 million of the institute’s work, and the coalition collectively will invest $70 million.

“This is a team effort, with many universities, industries, and other partners contributing their ideas and capabilities,” said Xiaodong “Chris” Li, graduate program director and Rolls-Royce Commonwealth Professor in UVA’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Li will lead UVA Engineering’s research and participation in the coalition.

“The Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute will facilitate multi-institution collaboration, joining industry experts with university researchers to satisfy industry needs, empower rapid technology transfer, and pursue opportunities for future research funding.”

Li’s research will focus on three compelling areas of manufacturing: 3-D printing, plasma spraying and processing wear. This work could result in huge cost savings for U.S. companies. All three areas involve the use of smart sensors and other advanced technologies to detect and fix product defects during the process of manufacturing, which will replace industry reliance on human-driven quality control inspections after production.

“Our research is focused on in-process monitoring, which is very important for manufacturing,” Li said. “As a participant in the national coalition, we will work to make these smart technologies industry ready.”

To achieve industry-ready results, Li’s in-process monitoring system will be put to the test addressing critical disadvantages in each of the three areas of manufacturing.

In manufacturing with 3-D printing, one disadvantage is the presence of pervasive internal defects, which currently cannot be identified until after production using expensive, complex inspection techniques with scanning microscopes, X-rays or CT scans. Li’s in-process monitoring system will catch and immediately correct defects before printing is complete, eliminating lost production time and material waste.

Similarly, the unique monitoring system also will integrate smart sensors into the common process of spraying products with plasma coatings, which are designed to prevent corrosion and wear on products yet are highly affected by application conditions. The sensors will detect defects during the coating process, such as bubbles or particles in the spray, and trigger automatic corrections.

Tool wear leads to poor surface finish and quality in cutting and shaping processes and is a persistent challenge in manufacturing. Li’s smart sensor monitoring system will detect wear on cutting and machining tools, so maintenance and replacement can occur before products are damaged.

The coalition will add to UVA Engineering’s growing strength in smart energy and smart manufacturing research. UVA Engineering is a founding partner, along with Rolls-Royce, in the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, a 62,000-square-foot applied research center that was the first of its kind in the country when it opened in 2012. The center provides the capability for university and industry partners to accelerate product development and transfer research and technology breakthroughs directly to commercial use. The center has also committed to participating in the new national coalition and providing an industry-hosted test bed in Virginia for the national Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute, and Li, who serves as UVA’s liaison with the Commonwealth Center, will coordinate this collaboration.

UVA Engineering also is one of only three universities in the country to be included in Rolls-Royce’s global University Technology Centers network, with research groups in world-class universities engaged in long-term projects to develop groundbreaking manufacturing technologies.

“Our School has a strong foundation in energy research and an increasing expertise in applying these technologies to manufacturing,” said Professor Pamela Norris, UVA Engineering’s executive associate dean for research.  “We look forward to contributing our experience to the coalition and its exciting work.”

UVA Engineering’s participation should enrich undergraduate and graduate student education through exposure to state-of-the-art manufacturing research and technologies, and through the introduction to industry partners.

“This also will give UVA a platform to work with industry, the Department of Energy and other agencies to continue developing trend-setting manufacturing research.” Li said.