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Friday, August 22, 2014

Lightweight Metals Innovation Hub Could Be Boon to Machining

aluminum machining shotThe latest initiative to emerge from the Obama administration’s efforts to assist the progress of U.S. advance manufacturing is the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute, or ALMMII. The institute is also being referred to as the Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation Institute, or LM3I, by the White House. It is designed to develop the technology of lightweight metal manufacturing in solid, powder, and any other form.

The stated goal of the institute, which is being run by a consortium of universities, companies, and nonprofits, is to make the U.S. “the world leader in the application of innovative lightweight metal production and component/subsystem manufacturing technologies.”

As such, work by ALMMII and its consortium partners will eventually provide job shops and other machining specialists in the United States with opportunities to expand business through access to new metalworking technologies, machining systems, and products.

That, at least, is the vision of Lawrence Brown, executive director of ALMMII. “With the development of new materials, job shops will have opportunities to expand their capabilities and increase their business,” he said.

Responding to emailed questions from ThomasNet News, Brown stated that ALMMII will conduct primary research with such metals as aluminum, titanium, and magnesium alloys, along with other advanced high-strength steels that include nanostructure grades. The results will be applicable to consumer and industrial markets, as well as to a variety of military systems and platforms.

The Department of Defense, in fact, is providing almost half of the institute’s $148 million in start-up funding. This amounts to $70 million from the LM3I solicitation issued by the Office of Naval Research. The remaining $78 million is being supplied by ALMMII’s consortium partners, which include 34 companies, nine universities and labs, and 17 other organizations. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. is providing $10 million, as is the state of Ohio.

Membership in the consortium is open to U.S. companies, Brown said. Foreign OEMs can participate, but only if they have U.S. operations. (One starting member is, in fact, Honda.) When it comes to machining OEMs, “ALMMII wants to work with [them] when their services fit with specific projects,” Brown added.

Lawrence Brown

Lawrence Brown

ALMMII will be based in Canton, Mich., near Detroit, in a facility that is slated to be up and running this spring. The institute will capitalize on the manufacturing expertise and infrastructure of southeast Michigan and parts of Ohio and Kentucky. Some published reports estimate that 10,000 metalworking jobs, including many in machining, could be generated within five years as a result of its work.

The institute’s origin owes to President Barack Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, when he pledged to revitalize American manufacturing and technology with a string of manufacturing innovation institutes. Three organizations — EWI, an Ohio-based manufacturing technology nonprofit; the University of Michigan; and Ohio State University — have been designated founding members of the lightweight metals institute, which will operate as a regional hub in the federal National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI).

Brown said that in addition to materials R&D, machining techniques will be a focus of the institute’s work. “All secondary processing relevant to lightweighting is included in the ALMMII mission,” he noted.

These processes, of course, extend to wire electrical discharge machining (EDM), laser cutting, and waterjet cutting, along with the still-maturing technology of additive manufacturing (AM).

“There will be work directed toward the development and introduction of new materials amenable to AM,” Brown remarked. “Also, ALMMII plans to partner with America Makes, the additive manufacturing institute of NNMI,” he said. America Makes, based in Youngstown, Ohio, is the institute that served as the pilot for the NNMI.

Worker training is part of the institute’s charter. “ALMMII has a workforce director and will be partnering with workforce intermediaries to support training,” Brown said.

The results of ALMMII’s efforts will be to give U.S. manufacturers access to a number of innovative metal technologies that will have a large impact on a variety of market needs — from auto mileage standards, lower energy use, and reduced carbon emissions to lightweight military components and platforms that can be tailored for operational needs and easily shipped anywhere in the world.

The institute also wants to lower the prices of and increase access to so-called boutique metals (i.e., ultra-high-performance materials) by scaling up the supply infrastructure and manufacturing capacities that affect their availability and by helping to develop testing and certification methods for their use in products.

These developments bode well for every business in the machining industry, especially as they pertain to scaling up new materials technology. If ALMMII meets its goals, OEMs, job shops, and equipment suppliers stand to gain expertise and capabilities that will trickle down from the institute to increase their business opportunities.



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