Source: JEC Composites | Joshua Jampol | November 16, 2017

A new group has been formed in the southeastern U.S. that will offer a complete range of carbon-fiber and composites assets in the region, bringing jobs to the U.S. composites industry.

Called the Composites Coalition, it will be led by an advisory board which includes the State of Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Institute for Advanced Composites Materials Innovation (IACMI), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and the University of Tennessee, in addition to private-sector composites firms.

The goal is to promote the southeastern U.S. region as a composites center, primarily for automobiles.

Advanced composites are booming in America.; the sector has created 300,000 jobs in the last five years, and growth is projected at 15 percent yearly.

“Composites are a big driver for the future of industry in the region,” notes Adam Murray, the TVA’s senior target market specialist for economic development. “Specifically, because of Oak Ridge Lab being there. Lots of research into composites and materials sciences is happening there.” The Lab is the driver behind growth of composites in the southeast, and known for being on the cutting-edge of carbon-fiber research and lightweighting.

The Coalition project, announced in March after 15 months of gestation, is mainly industry-led. Lindsay Hammill, economic development manager for Knoxville’s Chamber of Commerce, told JEC’s U.S. Newsletter, “The private sector came to us, saying, ‘We think we can be world leaders in composites.’ But they needed good workers.”

Training workers

This is where Oak Ridge comes in. ORNL – the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest materials science lab – has a budget of $1.5 billion and is home to the DOE’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility.

Jesse Smith, manager for industrial partnership and economic development for the Oak Ridge Lab, explains, “Industry tells us what’s missing and we set up something tailored for that. We deliver whatever they need.” This includes a newly trained work force for the composites industry. Many vocational education programs were available for firms in the region, but skills training for composites was lacking.

Chassen Haynes, director of business development for the State of Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, sees the education initiative as an important part of the Coalition. “There’s no better way to cultivate technology industries and grow more applications, like composites and carbon fibers,” says he.

Oak Ridge has already launched one composites-focused training program, built around infusion and related processes, and is considering another, in boat-building. The numerous boatmakers in the area need a specifically designed training program, Smith says. “They do less infusion, more things the old way, but need help transitioning to the new environment.”

The main thrust of the Coalition however, is to provide skilled workers for the region’s 900 auto suppliers.

IACMI, based in Knoxville, is one of former President Barack Obama’s initiatives to create a national network of manufacturing institute hubs. Headquartered in Oak Ridge, it seeks to develop and commercially deploy advanced composite materials for vehicle applications. In particular, it wants to challenge existing designs and define new components to meet longevity and crash-performance requirements.

The northern U.S., particularly Michigan, and more especially Detroit, is the traditional home of American auto manufacturing. Yet the more than 900 suppliers in the southeast, both foreign and domestic, include the larger ones like GM and Ford, and in the last 30 years the region has seen Mercedes, Kia, Hyundai, BMW and Toyota set up shop – not only in Tennessee, but also in the surrounding half-dozen states.

Says ORNL’s Jesse Smith, “The companies looking to start up in Tennessee want to supply other companies in the area, or are making a product to be sold in a regional market.” There is no equivalent to ORNL in Michigan, he points out, which could be a big advantage.

This does not mean the Coalition seeks to rival the historical car-making region. “There’s enough room in the market for everybody,” notes the TVA’s Murray. The Oak Ridge Lab does not see itself as competing against the north. Says Jesse Smith, “We’re looking for companies who don’t have a presence in the U.S. but who have customers they could better serve through a facility in the U.S. Our Coalition shows them how companies work together here, how they can get trained workers, and how we’re recruiting to gaps in the supply chain. We let them know why they should think about the region.”

The new Coalition has promised support to the composites firms it seeks to draw to the area. “We will do whatever it takes to help them find their work force, funding or the right site for their building,” says the Chamber of Commerce’s Lindsay Hammill.

The Coalition is hoping these end-users will realize it makes sense for them to put down stakes in the territory, just as they are optimistic that local job seekers will take advantage of the training opportunities.

At the TVA, where economic development has been part of the culture of the government group since its inception in 1933, Adam Murray adds, “We want industry to see that we’ll support them with research and training, so they can help grow the supply chain in the region. We’re happy to work with JEC, the world’s largest composites group, which lets us reach international companies.”