UT Research Park Breaks Ground on Innovation South

Today, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, celebrated the groundbreaking of Innovation South, an 85,000-square-foot multi-use facility at the UT Research Park at Cherokee Farm.

The facility will be the new expanded home of UT’s Fibers and Composites Manufacturing Facility (FCMF), the longtime vision of UT–ORNL Governor’s Chair for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Uday Vaidya.

“Innovation South demonstrates UT’s continued commitment to co-locate our leading researchers with their industry partners, quickly turning research results into new products that strengthen and grow Tennessee’s innovation economy,” said UT Chancellor Donde Plowman. “Professor Vaidya is one of our most prolific inventors. His work has attracted scores of industry partners to Tennessee and resulted in the creation of multiple high-tech startups that are creating jobs and opportunities in the region.”

UT will occupy a 40,000-square-foot high bay and laboratory space designed to support teams of faculty, students and their industry collaborators who will work together to conceptualize, prototype and test sustainable composite materials for advanced manufacturing applications, including precision agriculture, architecture and automotive, among others.

Innovation South will also provide critical workforce training for Tennesseans. Students from high schools, community and technical colleges and universities, as well as workers seeking upskilling, will be trained on industry-relevant equipment and learn about material design and evaluation, advanced manufacturing processes and quality control.

“This facility will be amazing for learners at all levels, because they will get hands-on experiences with everything industry needs them to know,” said Vaidya. “We are projecting at least 50 graduate students and about 100 undergraduates in a given semester will work on research projects, plus about 15 postdocs and technical staff. Add to that mix 50 to 100 students and workers coming through for training each year—it will be a very dynamic space.”

Manufacturing by Design

UT’s research in FCMF will design, manufacture and test materials such as advanced composites created from low-cost fibers and fast-curing resins to produce value-added products for a range of sectors such as automotive, wind, aerospace, marine, power, energy, sporting and industrial applications. The work will span basic research to applied pre-commercialization scale with an ultimate goal of creating cost-effective, fieldable solutions for industry.

What will set the space apart is the ability to mix and match processes, enabling industry to explore new processes and then scale up quickly while de-risking their operations.

“If you look at the automotive sector today, there is glass fiber, carbon fiber, basalt and a range of different resin types that each require a process flow,” explained Vaidya. The Innovative South facility will enable us to develop ‘materials by design’ solutions that will save cost, energy and manufacturing time of next-generation products.”

Planned equipment stations in FCMF will be physically positioned to mimic and test the full value chain of industry processes. They will include pellet production; sheet, compression and injection molding; large-area additive manufacturing; automated tape placement; braiding and winding; laser cutting and preforming; shredding and recycling; and more.

“We will have a process flow pretty much like industry, starting with incoming material and moving up in stages,” said Vaidya. “All the equipment here is threefold. There’s the R&D [research and development] mission, the workforce development mission and the industry directives mission.”

Faculty and students from UT’s Tickle College of EngineeringCollege of Architecture and Design and Institute of Agriculture will all have a presence.

“The space is designed to invite faculty engagement on a larger scale—it will be a place where their ideas can be implemented and actualized to demonstrate what we can do with our industry partners,” said Vaidya.

An Ecosystem of Partners

The expanded FCMF will further UT’s reputation for advanced materials and manufacturing excellence and provide a front door for industry partners ready to collaborate on use-inspired projects.

“One of the most distinctive features of Innovation South is the fact that it’s truly a public–private partnership,” said Tom Rogers, president of the UT Research Park. “Approximately half the building has been leased to partner organizations who will be able to work side by side with UT researchers and students on new innovations.”

Innovation South will also serve as the new headquarters for IACMI—The Composites Institute, a 130-plus-member consortium of companies largely focused on the composites manufacturing sector.

“IACMI is excited to locate our headquarters at Innovation South,” said IACMI’s CEO and UT Professor of Mechanical Engineering Chad Duty. “It will be a great focal point for regional synergy, offering unique opportunities for public–private collaboration to create commercial solutions in the advanced manufacturing of composites.”

Not far from Innovation South in Knoxville’s Hardin Valley is the U.S. Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and UT’s Manufacturing and Design Enterprise (TN-MADE), two go-to places for industry to collaborate with ORNL and UT researchers on the design and development of new technologies and processes.

Vaidya sees the Innovation South facility complementing activities at MDF and TN-MADE and leveraging IACMI as a bridge between them.

“We cross-pollinate our efforts—the ecosystem is not siloed, it’s completely integrated,” said Vaidya. “The distinguishing feature of all three is the access students—the next-generation workforce for the U.S. and global economy—and companies will have.”

In addition to UT and IACMI, other tenants slated to move into Innovation South include New Day DiagnosticsTrimble, the U.S. Forest Service and Volkswagen Group of America. Volkswagen works closely with UT and ORNL on many joint projects through the Volkswagen Innovation Hub.

Innovation South is a project developed and owned by Partners Development.