WMU to play critical role in national manufacturing initiative

contact: Cheryl Roland
| WMU News

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Faculty experts and a new center at Western Michigan University will play a critical role in a new $171 million manufacturing innovation initiative being announced by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter today in San Jose, California.

Speaking at NASA's Ames Research Center, Carter will help launch the Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute as the nation's newest member of the Obama administration's Nationwide Network for Manufacturing Innovation—NNMI—which is intended to scale up advanced flexible hybrid electronic manufacturing technologies and processes. The institute will be centered in California, with Silicon Valley's FlexTech Alliance leading the initiative.

A $75 million Department of Defense award to FlexTech will be matched by $96 million in cost sharing from nonfederal sources, including the City of San Jose, private companies, universities, several U.S. states, and not-for-profit organizations.

Institute to benefit multiple industries

Photo of Massood Atashbar.


The institute’s activities will benefit a wide array of markets beyond defense, including automotive, communications, consumer electronics, medical devices, health care, transportation and logistics, and agriculture. While the institute will be headquartered in San Jose, existing nodes around the country already have in place an infrastructure ready to solve some of the known manufacturing challenges. The Institute will distribute R&D funds via competitively-bid project calls.

WMU sensor and flexible printing experts are part of the FlexTech team. They helped write the winning proposal and will serve as core subject matter experts for the FHE NNMI. WMU has been identified as a "thematic node," one of four centers around the nation named in the NNMI proposal. The WMU entity will be the Flexible Electronics Applications and Technology—FEAT—Center. FEAT will be directed by Dr. Massood Atashbar, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Dr. Margaret Joyce, professor of chemical and paper engineering.

"This is not a center for research, it's a center for manufacturing," says Joyce. "The focus of the center will be to assist industry in the scale-up of their technologies and to identify new technology needs in the process. We will be working on technologies that will protect our military and enrich the lives of U.S. consumers."

The national network will work together to scale-up technologies that meet the expressed needs of the military and can be transitioned to consumer markets. They will include new generations of flexible sensors that will have consumer uses for communication, human performance monitoring, health care, energy management and data mining, as well as applications on the battlefield.

Photo of Margaret Joyce.


"The same technology that might allow physiological or environmental sensors in uniforms, could also be useful to consumers as a workout monitoring device," notes Atashbar. "There are a variety of industries looking for small, reliable and cost-effective flexible sensors that monitor environmental, physical, chemical and biological parameters."

The global market in flexible hybrid electronics, now at nearly $13 billion, is expected to top $77 billion by 2025, the WMU experts say.

Latest in White House manufacturing initiative

The Manufacturing Innovation Institute announced Aug. 28 becomes the seventh such entity funded since President Barack Obama unveiled the idea during a 2013 State of the Union address. Obama asked Congress to authorize investment—to be matched by private and non-federal funds—to create an initial network of up to 15 institutes. The purpose is to create a competitive, effective, and sustainable research-to-manufacturing infrastructure for U.S. industry and academia to solve industry-relevant problems.

Obtaining funding to launch an institute has been an extraordinarily competitive and multi-step, two-year process, the WMU team members say. The prospective winners in the process for this technology came down to FlexTech Alliance and Arizona State University.

WMU's Joyce says securing the funding meant building a case that the technology was ready, the infrastructure was in place and industry is supportive with the idea of moving quickly into a manufacturing environment.

"Our role, specifically, will be to work with materials suppliers to build a materials registry," she says,  "and to assist companies in the scale-up of their technologies.  That will involve developing, test forms, establishing testing protocols, creating and documenting standard operating procedures and training educators and the industrial work force as well."

Atashbar notes the WMU role in the initiative has already attracted the support of 10 companies and four other universities. As new projects are launched through the hub organization in Silicon Valley, WMU may also reach out to lead and partner with other members of the national network.

Building on an international reputation

Joyce's work has long revolved around flexible printed electronics. Atashbar has an extensive background in the design and fabrication of sensors. Together, they are integrating ink formulation, printing processes and sensor technology development in a way no other university has replicated.

"We're so pleased we were invited by FlexTech to be part of a broad collaboration of industry, academia and government that will support the state, region and nation in this critical area of advanced manufacturing," Joyce says. "We view this as a recognition of the national presence our departments have built and the strong industry partnerships forged over the years."

Over six decades, Western Michigan University developed an international reputation in the areas of paper engineering and printing. For the past seven years, WMU has been home to the award-winning Center for the Advancement of printed electronics—CAPE. Earlier this year, CAPE was honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences as the lead U.S. institution in printed electronics.

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