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Washington hopes to build innovative manufacturing center

Universities in Washington and Oregon have banded together to apply for federal funds to create a “regional innovative manufacturing facility” in each state, which would focus on each state’s technology expertise.

In Washington, the facility would accelerate the real-world application of carbon composite technologies, bringing the super-strong material onto more factory floors, said Mark Tuttle, a mechanical engineer and director of the FAA-backed center on Advanced Materials in Transport Aircraft Structures, headquartered at the University of Washington.

Tuttle is one of the principals on the funding application, with professor of mechanical engineering Santosh Devasia, who is the lead.

“My view is this kind of thing helps the small and medium-sized manufacturers, who often don’t have the resources to develop production expertise on these new material systems,” Tuttle said. “If we’re successful in the state of Washington, one of the major objectives would be to develop new composite manufacturing techniques that would benefit the transportation industry.”

The proposed institutes would help span the gap between promising new technologies developed at the university level, and actually turning those into competitive products that can be used in high-tech manufacturing.

Industry people call this gap the “valley of death,” Tuttle said, because new technologies often languish on university shelves because smaller companies don’t have the resources to move them forward.

“This manufacturing center would be staffed by both a handful of permanent people, UW employees perhaps, and XYZ Corp. (a hypothetical example), could utilize that facility to help develop manufacturing processes to produce new components of some sort,” he said.

Oregon is proposing a similar facility that would focus on electronics manufacturing, because that’s a strength of that state, he added.

The role model for such centers, which were proposed by President Barack Obama, is the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio.

Seven institutions so far supporting the Northwest proposal are Washington State University, University of Oregon, Oregon State University, Portland State University, Edmonds Community College, the University of Washington and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

Peter Zieve, president of aerospace supplier Electroimpact Inc. in Mukilteo, contributed a letter of support to the application partly because he thinks such a facility could be useful, he said.

“It could well be a good idea to advance the state of the art,” he said.

The application, to the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington, D.C., will be for a “planning grant” of up to $500,000, to further develop the concept in Washington and Oregon.

The actual facility could cost $40 million to $50 million, Tuttle said.

 
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