It’s one of the most talked-about issues today: How do we keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S.? The University of Utah’s College of Engineering has been working diligently to find the right answer through better technologies and processes.

The College is focusing on innovation in manufacturing, from researching new forms of composite materials to establishing a center that helps local manufacturers perform more efficiently. The importance of manufacturing to the U.S. is clear. Last year, manufacturers contributed $2.18 trillion to the U.S. economy, and there are 12.3 million American manufacturing workers, making up 9 percent of the country’s total workforce, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

“We can show companies how to innovate on making higher-quality products and how to use the most up-to-date technology,” University of Utah mechanical engineering chair, Tim Ameel, said about why the College has been funneling resources into manufacturing initiatives. “Improving manufacturing in Utah is something the U can do that will make a difference.”

Here is a sample of what has happened in the University of Utah’s College of Engineering in the past year to stimulate manufacturing in Utah and the U.S.

  • Helping Local Manufacturers Remain Competitive: The U.S. Department of Commerce named the University of Utah the host of the state’s new Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Center, which delivers services for small and medium-sized manufacturing companies. The center, which is run by College of Engineering faculty and local manufacturing professionals, provides expertise in advanced manufacturing technology, innovation, worker education, operational excellence, and investor opportunities. “The goal of the program is provide these services so businesses can remain competitive against cheap overseas labor and to keep those manufacturing jobs here,” says University of Utah mechanical engineering associate professor Bart Raeymaekers, principal investigator of the center.
  • Transforming Pitch to Carbon-Fiber: University of Utah chemical engineering professor Eric Eddings, along with the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research, has launched a $1.6 million research project to develop cost effective, carbon-friendly methods of turning coal-derived pitch into carbon-fiber composite material. The research team is working with the Utah Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Initiative (UAMMI), a consortium of materials companies, research institutions and state agencies, to examine the market potential for producing this composite material from Utah coal and if other coal communities can benefit from this technology. Carbon-fiber composite material, which is extremely light but strong, can be used in products from aircraft parts to skis, bicycle frames, outdoor recreational equipment, even prosthetics.
  • Manufacturing Lightweight Strong Materials: Mechanical engineering researchers from the College will be joining 11 other institutions to establish a new NASA-funded Space Technology Research Institute to develop carbon nanotube-based materials that are lightweight and strong and to educate other engineers and scientists about these new materials. The institute will be partnering with NASA, other federal agencies, industry, and research institutions.
  • Manufacturing Robots: The School of Computing and Department of Mechanical Engineering have recently launched the University of Utah Robotics Center, which is focusing on manufacturing robots, as well as other technologies ranging from haptic interfaces to humanoid robots.
  • Additive Manufacturing: Mechanical engineering assistant professor Ashley Spear and Bart Raeymaekers have received a $3 million federal government grant to develop new methods of additive manufacturing, a process of building an object by adding ultrathin layers of material one by one with a 3D printer. This process can be used to produce everything from aircraft and automotive parts to microscale objects.
  • Saving Energy: For businesses, cutting down on the electric bill can involve fine-tuning machinery, optimizing industrial systems, or making the heating and ventilation system more efficient. That’s why University of Utah chemical engineering assistant professor Kody Powell and mechanical engineering assistant professor Amanda Smith started the Intermountain Industrial Assessment Center. This energy auditing program, which launched late last year, involves expert faculty and students evaluating manufacturing businesses and coming up with the best ways these companies can save energy and therefore money. The group has received a $1.8 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to launch the center.
  • Manufacturing Tools to Change Surgical Procedures: A computer-driven automated drill, similar to those used to machine auto parts, could play a pivotal role in future surgical procedures. The new machine can make one type of complex cranial surgery 50 times faster than standard procedures, decreasing from two hours to two and a half minutes. Researchers at the University of Utah developed the drill that produces fast, clean and safe cuts, reducing the time the wound is open and the patient is anesthetized, thereby decreasing the incidence of infection, human error, and surgical cost. The findings were reported online in the May 1 issue of Neurosurgical Focus. “My expertise is dealing with the removal of metal quickly, so a neurosurgical drill was a new concept for me,” explained A. K. Balaji, associate professor in mechanical engineering at the U. “I was interested in developing a low-cost drill that could do a lot of the grunt work to reduce surgeon fatigue.” The team developed the drill from scratch to meet the needs of the neurosurgical unit, as well as developed software that sets a safe cutting path. Full story . . .