By Nick Rigas, CURI & SCE&G Energy Innovation Center Executive Director
I had the good fortune last month to be invited to attend the American Energy and Manufacturing Competitiveness Conference in Washington DC. The conference was co-hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Council on Competitiveness. Having spent most of my career working in manufacturing prior to joining Clemson University, I was very excited to attend such an event. Even though my focus over the past 9 years has been around developing and building public/private partnerships, new facilities and building research teams for Clemson University; I still have a passion for manufacturing. I don’t know what it is about manufacturing that excited me back then and still does. Maybe it’s the ever changing challenges, the deadlines, the people, managing budgets, seeing product being produced, packaged and shipped or maybe it’s just knowing that you produced something that is going to be of value to someone or society somewhere in the world. Without a doubt the concept of taking a raw material and making it into something of value is exciting to me. Maybe that is why I have such a passion for woodworking.
My manufacturing career started by chance as most things in life. Graduating with my doctorate in chemical engineering, my goal was to first complete a two year post-doc then like most PhDs that preceded me, I would build my own research program at a university. When my post doc position did not transpire due to funding constraints, I was left scrambling to figure out how I was going to pay my bills and support my very young family. I was approached about joining FMC Corporation in Nitro, WV as their plant engineer. Sure, I thought to myself. I can go and do this for a year while I search for another post-doc opportunity. How hard could a plant engineering position be at an old manufacturing plant? Come on, I just completed a PhD in Chemical Engineering. Within weeks I found myself engulfed in all sorts of technical problems that needed to be solved immediately since it was costing thousands of dollars per hour due to lost production. I found out that what should happen and what the calculations show should happen in a process usually don’t happen. I was put on a team to negotiate a new contract with the union workers. I was being trained on how to respond to fires and chemical spills. I was on the phone with suppliers yelling at them for delays in delivery of our raw materials. I was on the phone with customers trying to explain why their product orders are delayed. One night at 3 AM, I found myself standing on the 5th story of a distillation system in sub-zero temperatures drenched with water from a leaking pipe. Despite standing there freezing, the interesting thing was that I loved the manufacturing environment. Maybe it was the constant rush of adrenalin that such an environment provides. Maybe it was the fact that you were always faced with challenges both technical and non-technical that you had to solve quickly. Maybe it was the diverse group of people you worked with. Whatever it was, I found myself 16 years later still working in manufacturing having worked up through the ranks of operations manager, plant manager, manufacturing director and then manufacturing/technology director responsible for manufacturing sites on several continents.
As I sat through the conference in Washington DC listening to government officials, industry leaders, university presidents discuss the challenges that are facing U.S. manufacturing, I yearned for those days but also realized that in my current role at Clemson University I can still play an important role in ensuring manufacturing thrives in our nation. Taking raw materials and making them into a product that adds values was what built this country in the 20th century and we as a nation have to ensure this important part of our economy remains competitive and grows. That means higher education has to play a role not only developing new knowledge and technologies but also transferring it to the market while at the same time manufacturing the most important product we produce, the workforce of the future.
I was shocked and excited on the second day of the conference to hear U.S. Assistant Secretary David Danielson announced that Clemson University along with its partner TECO-Westinghouse Motor Company had won a $6.7M award to develop a new generation of high speed multi-megawatt motors used by U.S. manufacturers that account for over 65% of energy use in heavy industry. As I listened to him call out the names of all the winners of the $22M initiative, it struck me that Clemson University was the only school leading an award. The rest were led by industry. It was clear that Clemson University was able to compete against other major technology developers by bringing together a viable public/private partnership to develop a new technology, validate it and then get it out in the market. After spending the past 5 years building the facilities that can support such initiatives, we are going to develop and produce a product and along the way educate the workforce of the future. The product has a high potential for making U.S. heavy industry more competitive. Although I am no longer standing drenched in freezing temperatures at 3 in the morning, the team at CURI is supporting America’s manufacturing and making it more energy efficient and competitive for future generations.