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Light headed: A public and private partnership

Keywords: Tags  steel, lightweighting, automotive, defense, aerospace, public-private research initiatives, American Iron and Steel Institute, U.S. Defense Department Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation Institute

Technological advancement brought about through research has been an essential component of success for steelmakers and others in the metals sector from the very beginning.

And an important ingredient of that recipe for much of the past century has been the use of public and private partnerships to develop the breakthroughs that have kept U.S. steel viable. It also has created competition for new ideas and implementations among U.S. steel companies.

Lightweighting has been a mantra of the nation’s automotive and metal industries for years. The American Iron and Steel Institute, for example, has worked closely with automakers to reduce the weight of cars and light trucks.

Steelmakers and other manufacturers have been focused on the threat of plastics and composites replacing steel in the automotive manufacturing process, while automakers have been more concerned with reducing weight to meet increasingly stringent federal fuel-economy standards: 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 and 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

But these efforts have reached well beyond fuel-efficient vehicles. The U.S. Defense Department is spearheading a lightweight metals initiative that will parlay public and private advanced manufacturing partnerships to search for 21st-Century high-strength steels and lightweight metals for the automotive, aerospace, defense, energy and consumer products industries.

The Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation Institute (LM3I), announced by President Obama in late February, will be supported by federal research money and private capital. LM3I will be based in the Detroit area and consist of 34 private companies—including Pittsburgh-based aluminum producer Alcoa Inc.; titanium mill products company RTI International Metals Inc., Pittsburgh; and Euclid, Ohio-based Powdermet Inc., a unit of Abakan Inc., Miami—nine universities and 17 other organizations.

EWI, formerly known as Edison Welding Institute, was named LM3I’s coordinator. The Columbus, Ohio-based organization, which provides applied research, manufacturing support and strategic services to more than 1,200 member company locations across the globe, operates several manufacturing and technology centers designed to advance specific breakthrough technologies for manufacturers in the aerospace, automotive, defense, energy, consumer products, rail and light industry sectors.

A second consortium, the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDI), based in Chicago, will focus on new technologies that take manufacturing from traditional design methods such as drafting tables and physical prototypes into computerized and digital design, and advance digital data interchange among design, engineering, manufacturing and maintenance systems. DMDI members include the North American Die Casting Association; Caterpillar Inc., Peoria, Ill.; Deere & Co., Moline, Ill.; and Chicago-based Boeing Co.

The two institutes will be funded with $140 million in federal grants and $320 million in private sector funding over the next five years.

“The availability of advanced lightweight metals is a pervasive factor in improving the performance of many systems in defense, energy, transportation and general engineered products, each representing large sectors of the U.S. economy. Moreover, lightweight metals have additional applications in areas such as wind turbines, medical technology, pressure vessels and alternative energy sources,” the Defense Department said of the focus of the LM3I consortium.

That was a prime reason Alcoa was one of the founding members of LM3I. “Lightweight metals are a growing and critical segment of the national manufacturing base. We’ve seen this most recently through the increased use of aluminum in the automotive industry to produce energy-efficient vehicles,” Alcoa chairman and chief executive officer Klaus Kleinfeld said. “As one of the country’s most established leaders in lightweight metals, Alcoa is committed to sharing our expertise to ensure the competitiveness of U.S. industry.”

Raymond Kilmer, Alcoa’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, said the company’s technical center near Pittsburgh will work closely with the institute’s other members in hope of discovering breakthrough lightweighting technologies that can be applied to a variety of industrial sectors, including automotive, aerospace, defense, consumer products and maritime.

“Public-private partnerships are essential to advancing the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing,” Kilmer said. “Bringing new innovations to market faster—while creating meaningful jobs in advanced manufacturing—is vitally important.”

But the creation of LM3I has as much to do with the Defense Department’s needs as it does achieving fuel-economy standards. As the Defense Department undergoes force reduction in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there is an increasing need for affordable, lightweight metals across the military’s unique systems and platforms.

“Lightweight metals have the potential for wide-ranging impact on the operational capabilities and technological superiority of U.S. defense systems,” the Defense Department said. “DoD needs to catalyze the investment in order to achieve an earlier maturation of the technology. The institute will help to develop an advanced lightweight-metal supplier base for the U.S. to compete in the global market while enabling the DoD to realize significant fuel reduction, increased payloads and greater speed and agility of manned, unmanned and soldier systems.”

The Defense Department cited the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), a family of more-survivable, higher-payload vehicles that are planned to succeed the High Mobility, Multi-Wheeled Vehicle (Humvee), as an example of how LM3I can be beneficial. One version of the JLTV has already been rejected because it was too heavy to be airlifted by Army and Marine Corps helicopters. The Defense Department noted that the manufacturing technologies coming out of LM3I can assist the JLTV program to include lighterweight materials that meet the ballistic, multithreat requirements for underbody protection (similar to the Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected All-Terrain Vehicle), body armor panels and gunner protection kits on top of the vehicles.

Some of LM3I’s founding companies have worked for years with defense and academic partners in cutting-edge lightweight materials research and development. Powdermet, for example, has been working for the past two years with the U.S. Army, the National Science Foundation, Oshkosh, Wis.-based Oshkosh Corp., Manitowoc, Wis.-based Eck Industries Inc. and the University of Wisconsin on commercialization of micro-nanocomposite aluminum alloys. It is that sort of research that the Defense Department and LM3I hope to accelerate in the next five years.  

LM3I also will focus on maritime applications. Consortium member Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md., for example, is the lead contractor on the U.S. Navy’s littoral combat ships, which are being built by Marinette Marine Corp. in Marinette, Wis. The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), the leading international classification society and a founding member of the institute, said that lightweight metals at sea will drive the next generation of naval design and development. 

“ABS is consistently focused on identifying novel and innovative concepts that aid the marine and offshore industries in improving the design, construction and maintenance of their assets,” ABS chairman and chief executive officer Christopher J. Wiernicki said. “The institute is a natural avenue to leverage ongoing ABS technology development in next-generation materials, metals and joining technologies.”

Defense planners are relying on LM3I to become a go-to center for U.S. manufacturers to more cost-effectively identify, test and incorporate new lightweight materials for engine, body and wing components for military aircraft, while materials companies can greatly reduce the risk of market expansion and manufacturing scale-up by employing the services and capabilities of the institute.

A major element of LM3I’s mission of taking innovative metal technologies to the factory floor will take place in the laboratories and classrooms of some of Mid-America’s most prestigious universities. A number of major land-grant universities, including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Ohio State University, will play a key role in the implementation of the institute’s work.

“Many of the materials for weight reduction already exist, such as high-strength steels, aluminum, magnesium and titanium,” said Alan Taub, University of Michigan professor of material science and LM3I chief technology officer. “The challenge is in optimizing component designs and developing the advanced processes to manufacture them robustly on a large scale at affordable cost. And each material needs its own tailored process.”

Sridhar Kota, Herrick Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan, has worked with the Obama administration since 2009 on creating initiatives for advanced manufacturing. Kota was one of the team members that helped create the administration’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership in 2011.

“These new institutes will help put ‘&’ back in R&D in order to get a better return on investment of taxpayers’ dollars,” Kota said. “We need them to undertake precompetitive translational research to mature emerging technologies before industry can adopt and perfect them to create next-generation products. Such translational research must be co-funded by the public sector and the private sector.”

The Michigan and Ohio economic development agencies will invest money in the institute mainly because LM3I is viewed as a generator of high-wage manufacturing jobs in the Midwest. Most of the 10,000 jobs that LM3I is expected to create will be in the metal stamping, metalworking, machining and casting industries, which are dominant in the Midwest. It aims to add 100 metal-related engineering professionals and 1,000 skilled trade workers per year. Within three years, LM3I should be offering advanced training to an additional 1,000 current employees per year.

“A vision of the institute is to prepare an eager work force and equip them with 21st-Century advanced manufacturing skills,” said Lawrence Brown, LM3I executive director and director of government technology programs at EWI. “Through the integration of the region’s work force, education and economic development assets, the institute will enable the availability of job-ready employees and maximize the transition of emerging technologies to small, medium and large firms in the region and across the nation.”

Some of the universities in the consortium will conduct research on specific technologies. Michigan State University’s College of Engineering will help develop advanced titanium alloys—materials that could enhance performance in transportation and energy systems and lead to improved fuel-efficiency in vehicles—while Michigan Technological University in Houghton will lend its expertise in fundamental and applied research in nanostructured and lightweight materials.

The American Foundry Society (AFS), one of LM3I’s 17 nonuniversity, nonprivate company members, said the new manufacturing initiatives for lightweight metals and digital manufacturing are key to the United States’ continuing leadership on the factory floor in the 21st Century.

“By convening titans of industry and academia in each of these hubs, we can keep metalcasting in the conversation about the future of our country,” AFS chief executive officer Jerry Call said. 

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