The Department of Energy announced up to $70 million in funding for the next Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation Institute, which will focus on smart manufacturing. As the Department explained last week, this investment—which is expected to be matched by private investing—will support research and development advancements to reduce the cost of deployment for technologies such as advanced sensors, controls, platforms and modeling for manufacturing by as much as 50 percent.


As part of President Obama’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), the new institute will develop these technologies in manufacturing processes with a goal to increase energy efficiency by at least 15 percent and improve energy productivity by at least 50 percent. With increased deployment and reduced costs, these smart technologies can transform American manufacturing, enabling businesses to manufacture more while using less energy and spending less, according to the Department of Energy (DoE).


“Smart Manufacturing is a key information technology approach to unlocking energy efficiency in manufacturing,” says Secretary Ernest Moniz in a statement. “These technologies will make industries from oil and gas to aerospace and food production more competitive with intelligent communications systems, real-time energy savings and increased energy productivity. Energy intensive industries, such as steelmaking, could see a 10 to 20 percent reduction in the cost of production, making products such as solar panels and chemical materials, such as plastics, as well as the cars and other products they go into, more affordable for American consumers.”


Each NNMI institute is a private-public partnership that serves as a regional hub that spans the gap between applied research and product development by bringing together federal agencies, companies, universities and other academic and training institutions to co-invest in key technology areas that encourage investment and production in the U.S. Together, the institutes share common goals but have unique technological concentrations. Each institute is created to accelerate U.S. advanced manufacturing through the development of new technologies, educational competencies, production processes and products via shared contributions from the public and private sectors and academia. Perhaps most importantly, the Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation provide shared facilities to local start-ups and small manufacturers to help them scale up new technologies, accelerate technology transfer to the marketplace, and facilitate the adoption of innovation workforce skills at multiple levels, as well as to strengthen business capabilities in large and small companies, according to DoE.


The Innovation Institute on Smart Manufacturing will be the third Energy Department-funded facility. One is called PowerAmerica, located at North Carolina State University, where work is done to develop advanced manufacturing processes for the large-scale production of wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors, which enable electronic components to be smaller, faster and more efficient than semiconductors made from silicon.


The second facility is the Institute of Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where researchers work to develop lower-cost, higher-speed, and more efficient manufacturing and recycling processes for advanced composites. The institute will focus on lowering the overall manufacturing costs of advanced composites by 50 percent, reducing the energy used to make composites by 75 percent and increasing the recyclability of composites to over 95 percent within the next decade so the materials may be used in diverse industries.


It will be interesting to see how quickly progress is made at the new institute. A savings of 10 percent to 20 percent in the cost of production would indeed have a significant impact on energy intensive industries.