The building materials of the future are being developed today in Innovation Valley.
From the carbon fiber research taking place at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to the decorative tiles being produced at Del Conca USA in Loudon, the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley region of East Tennessee has rightfully earned a new moniker: the Composites Coalition.
Managed and led by Innovation Valley, the Composites Coalition is a new initiative designed to leverage the collective strengths of the region and brand the area as a prime location for advanced composites companies.
Many of them already call Innovation Valley home. Magnum Venus Products, Techmer PM, Local Motors, Cirrus Aircraft, Del Conca USA, LeMond Composites, HTS International and Lifetime Products are just a few of the firms operating in the advanced materials sector in the region.
Their efforts are bolstered by the presence of major research institutions. Notable among these are the ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility and the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI). IACMI is a new National Composites Institute with more than 140 industry partners in Knoxville.
“East Tennessee has historically had a well-established cluster of composites companies, many focused on the boat-building industry,” says Doug Lawyer, vice president of economic development for the Knoxville Chamber. “It is also a very rich source of R&D of great interest to the composites industry. In the past year alone, a number of companies at various points of the composites supply chain have announced their intentions to establish locations in East Tennessee to capitalize on the unique assets that exist in the region.”
Why They Chose Eastern Tennessee
Paul Boyles, human resources manager for Del Conca USA, says the Italian-owned company selected Loudon in Innovation Valley for its new 450,000-sq.-ft. U.S. headquarters and manufacturing plant for a host of reasons.
“Proximity to the raw materials we needed to make our tile, the strong community work ethic, the helpfulness of local and state economic development organizations and the financial incentives all played key roles in bringing us to this region,” says Boyles. “It only took us 10 months to complete our first facility and we opened on 30 acres in 2014. We are at close to 100 employees now and expect to be at 135 to 140 workers upon completion of our expansion.”
The $85-million capital investment makes Del Conca one of the largest FDI deals in recent years in East Tennessee, but it’s not done building yet, notes Boyles.
“Our phase two expansion is designed to maximize production efficiency,” he says. “This is a good market in the USA for ceramic tiles. Innovation and quality are well-known here.”
Access to Interstates 40 and 75 make Loudon a perfect fit for the logistics needs of Del Conca, adds Boyles. “All of our product coming in and out ships by truck,” he says. “Our plant runs 24/7, and we can source 50 percent of our raw materials from Tennessee.”
Global boat manufacturer, Sea Ray, finds the same benefits in the composites capital of the East Coast. Sea Ray employs approximately 200 people in the Knoxville area, while Brunswick Boat Group employs 37.
Dan Nickola, plant manager at Sea Ray’s Tellico manufacturing facility in Vonore, Tenn., says the number of fiberglass manufacturers, chemical suppliers and equipment suppliers in the area has supported the facility and allowed it to add new proprietary technology to their watercrafts.
“Sea Ray’s ability to develop and apply cutting-edge composite practices, bringing to life our bold vision for boating, has resulted in an improved all-around experience for our customers,” Nickola says. Nickola notes he’s interested in seeing how their products might also benefit from IACMI in the future.
“For one thing, IACMI offers 3D printing at relatively large sizes, using plastics and composite materials. While we haven’t yet taken advantage of it, we’re very interested in exploring the use of 3D printing to make temporary molds or prototype parts,” Nickola says. “Additionally, IACMI has equipment from Magnum Venus Products that’s similar to ours, and they use it for the development of injection-mold processes. This could be helpful should Sea Ray adopt direct injection on our RTM parts. There’s also the possibility that we could partner with IACMI for new processes or technologies that we would like to put into trials. They offer training in several areas that would be highly useful as well.”
LeMond Composites, founded by legendary bicyclist and three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond, announced last October that it would invest $125 million and create 242 new jobs in a carbon-fiber manufacturing plant in Oak Ridge.
Located next to ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, the plant will make a new industry-disrupting carbon fiber for the transportation, renewable energy and infrastructure markets.
“We have assembled the only team in the world that has executed this proven technology that uniquely positions us to deliver a successful outcome for our customers and stakeholders,” LeMond said at the project announcement. “From our experience, I know that having the right team is a distinct advantage.”
How ORNL Acts Like a Magnet
Tom Rogers, director of industrial partnerships and economic development at ORNL, says that “we collaborate with literally hundreds of companies each year. We got together and said, ‘What if we focused our industry outreach effort in carbon-fiber composites and additive manufacturing?’ We built a commercialization strategy around that and ended up with 60 members in our Carbon Fiber Consortium. That in turn led to our landing IACMI.”
Rogers adds that “Knoxville is the headquarters of IACMI. We are building a highly competitive regional cluster around advanced composites. Several firms chose to locate here because they want to be near ORNL, the MDF, IACMI and the Carbon Fiber Consortium. Plus, the University of Tennessee brought in two Governor’s Chairs who are experts in advanced composite materials and additive manufacturing.”
Innovation Valley, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Knoxville Chamber all support the Composites Coalition initiative and work closely with ORNL to maximize its reach. “This is a magnet,” says Rogers. “The companies who are already here are working together like never before. We are seeing the supply chain work together. We even invented a new low-cost carbon fiber because of that collaboration, and LeMond Composites is using it in its new manufacturing plant.”
Local Motors in Knoxville is 3D printing autonomous vehicles using the advanced carbon fiber composites developed at ORNL.
“We think a tsunami is coming in low-cost composites in the automotive sector,” notes Rogers. “Every aspect of the supply chain is locating here.”