A wheeled, autonomous robot moved around parts of the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing during its “automation research day” in early February, a day when dozens of guests from various industries, universities and government agencies visited the research center to discuss the latest trends in factory robotics and automation.

Among the various research projects happening at the center — known as CCAM, for short — researchers are testing how autonomous robots such as the one operating in the center that day — an MiR 200 robot — can be integrated into the “digital factory” of the future. One possible use is to help businesses remotely monitor manufacturing processes. Automated transport of tools is another.

“You can imagine that you can use this interactively with personnel who are in manufacturing,” as well as with other robots, said Tim Ward, manager of research operations at CCAM. “If you want to use it for transport, you have a robot that is programmed to pick up tooling at a station and transport it.” 

The use of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence in manufacturing is one thrust of center’s research work, and a vitally important one, said Will Powers, CCAM’s president and CEO.

“Automation and artificial intelligence is where modern manufacturing is headed,” said Powers, the former chief financial officer for aircraft engine maker Rolls-Royce North America who has led CCAM since 2016.

CCAM, a 62,000-square-foot facility on West Quaker Road in Prince George County, opened in 2013 and operates as a partnership among more than 35 private companies, public universities in Virginia, and government agencies. Its goal is to conduct research to develop innovative new manufacturing processes and technologies.

Powers is leading the research center as it attempts to turn around an annual operating deficit of between $3 million and $4 million by revamping its business plan, recruiting new member companies, obtaining research grants, and forging stronger ties with universities to provide research staff.

In its budget revisions passed in February, the Virginia General Assembly provided a $2.7 million increase in operating support for CCAM, which Powers called “a huge help.” The budget revisions did not include money that would have enabled CCAM to buy its building from the University of Virginia Foundation.

Such programs as the automation research day held in February that brought 70 visitors to the center are part of the outreach done by CCAM to generate interest in its research capabilities.

An “advanced manufacturing education day” is being planned for May 1 that will explore best practice in workforce development.

While manufacturing automation is a core part of the research done by the center, its other focus areas include additive manufacturing, surface engineering and machining.

For instance, research being conducted by CCAM researchers like Yuri Plotnikov, who has a Ph.D. in technical sciences from the Moscow Power Engineering Institute, is exploring ways to improve additive manufacturing, a method of building precision parts — similar to what is sometimes called 3D printing — by depositing thousands of layers of microscopic materials to build a final product, rather than carving it from a large piece of raw material.

CCAM’s surface engineering research involves developing better materials and processes to protect engines and equipment from intense heat or friction.

“Right now, the strongest part of our portfolio is in automation and surface engineering,” Powers said. “We have to strengthen the backlog of research in additive manufacturing and machining.”

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To do its work, CCAM needs to attract research staff, and Powers said his goal is to add several Ph.D. researchers this year along with eight to 10 graduate research assistants.

“We have a surprisingly strong group of people now,” said Powers, adding that CCAM researchers have come from such schools as Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Michigan and Stanford University, along with such corporations as John Deere, General Electric, Rolls-Royce and Newport News Shipbuilding.

“We are bringing a lot of really strong industry and academic experience into the building,” he said. “That is not easy to do. A lot of people questioned whether we could get it done here in Disputanta, but we have managed to do that.” 

The state budget appropriation includes about $1.7 million for incentive grants aimed at attracting more research projects to CCAM. That includes $200,000 for incentive grants for new industry members with no prior membership at CCAM, and $300,000 for incentive grants to small manufacturing members who locate their primary job centers in Virginia.

It also includes $600,000 for grants dedicated to CCAM industry members who provide one-to-one matching funds, and $600,000 for university research grants.

“It is a nice package of incentives for us to work with,” Powers said. CCAM officials must work out details of a business plan and specifically how it will use the funds to present to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

CCAM has attracted some new industry members recently. For instance, Amsted Rail Co. Inc., a maker of components for railroad cars, joined the industry consortium on Jan. 1.

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CCAM added two new staff members in January and February to help advance its research projects and build links with universities. 

Lorin Sodell joined CCAM as its business leader for machining and factory development. Sodell brings 33 years of experience in engineering and manufacturing management, including a 13-year career with Rolls-Royce that included nine years leading the development of the company’s aircraft engine components factory in Prince George.

Sodell retired from Rolls-Royce only days before starting at CCAM. Part of his work at CCAM will be developing the center’s capacity for research in machining technology.

“The demand side for that is going to be high, as highly engineered products like automobiles and aircraft engines are pushed to become more and more efficient and more and more reliable,” he said. “The materials the products are made out of are going to be much more highly engineered.”

Sodell also will work as a research and industry liaison at Virginia State University’s College of Engineering and Technology.

“My role with VSU is going to be to help strengthen and create relationships with businesses and industries, to strengthen their [VSU’s] relationship as a member of CCAM, and to create internship opportunities for students,” he said.

In January, CCAM also brought Richard P. Martukanitz on board as an additive manufacturing fellow.

Martukanitz previously spent 28 years working at Penn State University’s Applied Research Laboratory, including as director of the university’s Center for Innovative Materials Processing.

Martukanitz, who retired from Penn State before joining CCAM, said he had followed the development of CCAM from its inception.

‘The premise that CCAM was built on — a public-private partnership with industry and university members — was intriguing,” he said. “I thought it was an extremely strong and viable model.”

He will jointly serve as a faculty member at the University of Virginia in materials science and engineering.

“One area that CCAM is looking to further strengthen is the relationship with academic partners,” he said.