Tom Ballard, chief alliance officer at PYA met with the leaders of Mac 5, a long time ETEC member, in this two-part series published on the Teknovation.biz blog/newsletter.
The camaraderie is distinctive as these colleagues, all with rich histories in Oak Ridge, sit around a conference table and talk about their work today under the Mac5 Technical Services LLC banner.
Just how distinctive is the collegiality? One of the long-time technical experts will begin a sentence, and another completes it. In the process, nothing is lost as they clearly relish the work they are undertaking after successful careers at one of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) plants or with a subcontractor in the community.
“What we’re doing is a game-changer for one manufacturing industry,” says Richard Macon, President of Mac5, the company that includes three PhD researchers with nearly 110 years of experience in the R&D area. “We’ve been flying under the radar up to now.”
In many respects, that’s an understatement considering that the current location of the company’s lab is a former retail shop in an Oak Ridge strip mall. In fact, if I had not been given the address, I would never have found the facility. There are no signs but, then, it is located in the Secret City in a former bakery.
Macon, a Watertown native and civil/environmental engineering graduate of Tennessee Tech University, started Mac5 five years ago after working for several subcontractors to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the Y-12 National Security Complex.
“I wanted to help companies that wanted to work with the UPF,” he says, referring to the $6.5 billion Uranium Processing Facility under construction on the Y-12 site. Yet, like any astute business executive, Macon recognized that “I had all of my eggs in the DOE basket. I wanted and needed to diversify.”
Over the last several years, the strategy of broadening Mac5’s customer base has resulted in Macon adding three well-recognized, long-time researchers to the team. They are, in order of addition, Roland Seals, formerly Chief R&D Technical Consultant and Senior Scientist at Y-12 with 42 years of service there; Vinod Sikka, a 40-year veteran of ORNL where he served as the Group leader of Material Processing Group and before retiring as the Manager of Research and Technology Development at ORNL; and Neal Evans, a materials science specialist for more than 30 years.
Collectively, the senior members of the research team have 93 issued patents, 11 pending patents, and 18 of the prestigious “R&D 100 Awards.” You can learn more about their backgrounds here. A fourth individual – Taylor Prince – is a chemical engineer who runs the lab and keeps Mac5 compliant.
So, how did this very experienced R&D team evolve?
“One of our clients had a corrosion/oxidation problem,” Macon said. “I recalled a conversation that I once had with Roland, so I called him.” Seals is a physical surface chemist by training, and the project also required a materials scientist. That’s how Sikka joined the effort followed by Neal Evans with his materials analysis expertise.”
Thus far, the Mac5 R&D team has undertaken 10 projects.
“We’ve fallen into a model to help people solve problems,” Macon said. “We’re looking for companies that need extra expertise in areas like additive manufacturing. We’re here to help win work, grow business, and explore new opportunities or build partnerships.”
“We have essentially become the R&D department for clients who cannot afford their own,” Richard Macon, President of Mac5 Technical Services LLC, says of the company that has its lab in a non-descript strip mall in Oak Ridge.
In addition to Macon, the team includes three seasoned researchers with a combined 110 years of experience. They are Roland Seals, former Chief R&D Technical Consultant and Senior Scientist at Y-12; Vinod Sikka, former Manager of Research and Technology Development at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL); and Neal Evans, a materials science specialist. Taylor Prince, the company’s chemical engineer, earned his B.S. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute four years ago.
The team meets every Friday morning to review existing projects as well as new opportunities, and we joined that discussion recently to learn more about the work they do and the approach they take.
“We’re all about innovation,” Seals says. “The literature is full of everything one needs to know. They (Mac5’s clients) just don’t have time to look at it.”
Anyone who is involved in manufacturing no doubt understands that reality. So, as Sikka explains, it’s helping take more than a century of knowledge gained through work in various laboratories and applying it to today’s problems.
“From an R&D perspective, we have enough background to address any materials or manufacturing issue and anything in between,” says Seals, the first of the four to join Macon. “If we need additional expertise, we have our own networks.”
Macon notes that a number of retirees are interested in still being engaged. In fact, that is the way the R&D team came together. There was a project that required expertise that Sikka had. As needs grew, Prince and Evans joined.
“We had been developing a corrosion solution for a company that needed scale-up for commercial implementation,” Macon said of the project for a local manufacturer. “Recently, we were asked by our client to modify the corrosion preventing formula for an alternate application method. They also asked us to design a system for application by the alternate method.”
The work involved not only designing the corrosion solution at the Mac5 laboratory in Oak Ridge, but also identifying companies that could scale-up the lab results for commercial scale production. Mac5 researchers actively participated in the commercial scale trials.
“Now, with a solution, Mac5 has been tasked with the economic analysis of the entire process,” Macon says. “We have also been tasked by our client to look at markets in other sectors that could use this or variations of this corrosion solution.”
Mac5 is also developing other coatings and treatments for many different manufacturing applications. Some of the initial treatments are undergoing pilot scale trials in different manufacturing plants.
This project clearly underscores the approach that Mac5 takes in working with clients. Starting with what Sikka describes as “benchtop innovation,” a solution has to be developed and then validated. Sometimes that is simple, but other times it is not.
“We had one process that worked great in the lab, but not when we tried to scale it,” Seals explains. “We had to go back and make modifications. When we have a development where we are solving a problem, we also have the opportunity to see how you implement it.”
Timely responsiveness is another key characteristic of the Mac5 R&D team. “We received an inquiry yesterday from a company with 31 plants that had an issue,” Sikka told us during the interview. “We were able to say within a day, ‘I think we can solve it. Let’s talk.’ You have an idea today, we can discuss and get you a prototype tomorrow.”
Macon is mindful of growing too far or too fast. “We don’t want to get too far from our roots,” he says.
Yet, knowing researchers as I do from my two previous careers at the University of Tennessee and ORNL, that might be a challenge. It was obvious that the R&D team was having a lot of fun.