After Year of Preparation, LSU Faculty Ready to Develop $20 Million Research Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing and Materials

BATON ROUGE, La.—The National Science Foundation recently awarded a $20 million grant to the Louisiana Board of Regents to fund the creation of a consortium that will support advanced manufacturing research and initiatives.

The Consortium for Innovation in Manufacturing and Materials, or CIMM, will work over the next five years to advance applications in 3-D metal printing and multi-scale metal forming. It will draw from a network of state resources—including faculty expertise from five state universities, and centers of excellence like the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing (NCAM) and the Louisiana Alliance for Simulation-Guided Materials Applications (LA-SiGMA)—to produce new research, develop and diversify the Louisiana workforce, and host K-12 educational outreach.

LSU will lead the consortium’s research efforts. Michael Khonsari, Dow Chemical Chair and Professor of Mechanical Engineering, will lead the overall project for the Louisiana Board of Regents, and Wen Jin Meng, the Gerald Cire and Lena Grand Williams Professor of Mechanical Engineering, will serve as the technical lead. Other faculty members, including Guoqiang Li, the John W. Reah Jr. Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Phillip Sprunger, Professor of Physics; and Bala Ramachandran, Assistant Dean for Research in the College of Engineering and Science at Louisiana Tech, will act as co-principal investigators.

"This award is a demonstration of the innovative research conducted by our engineering and science faculty,” said Kalliat T. Valsaraj, LSU Vice President for Research and Economic Development. “The research is important to both LSU and the state of Louisiana as we move toward a new economy based on advanced manufacturing.”

Khonsari, who also serves as an associate commissioner for the Board of Regents’ Office of Sponsored Programs, Research and Development, agreed the award is an exciting milestone.

But the award isn’t an “anomaly,” he said. “The review process at NSF is highly competitive and the development of a winning proposal … required a significant time and effort.”

The Process and the Players
The NSF grant comes years after a push by the national and state governments to further invest in materials science and advanced manufacturing research.

In 2012, the United States President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report stating the national manufacturing sector, which has traditionally driven knowledge production and innovation, was in serious decline. A year later, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a proposal to create 45 National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, or NNMI, hubs across the country as a way to guarantee “the next revolution in manufacturing is made right here in America.”

Meanwhile, the importance of materials science and manufacturing as an emerging growth sector had already been realized in Louisiana. In 2010, the Louisiana Board of Regents, which oversees all higher education bodies in the state, adopted “FIRST Louisiana,” a framework to help guide post-secondary education institutional planning and provide a foundation for a statewide approach to science and technology advancement.

That same year, the state received a $20 million Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) grant from the NSF to create (LA-SiGMA), which has since established multi-institutional research teams and statewide delivery of advanced courses in computational materials science. This helped build momentum for CIMM.

When it came time for another NSF RII-Track 1 competition, the Board and the Louisiana Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) office were prepared. In advance of the next competition, the Board solicited research proposals, strategically focused on research in advanced materials and manufacturing, the chosen theme, from the state institutions.

“We felt this area was where we had a lot of strength, and there’s a good future in it,” Khonsari said. ”We also knew that, if we could compete successfully, then this would open the door for many other research areas and allow us to work with industry more.”

From start to finish, the process of securing the national grant took nearly a year. After the Board selected a proposal to pursue, diverse groups of faculty from LSU and elsewhere began meeting to discuss how to make it a reality. Over the next several months, the proposal-writing team brainstormed research project ideas and potential strategies, and detailed their step-by-step plan in a proposal to submit to NSF. The proposal saw numerous revisions and four complete rounds of external preliminary reviews before the final version was submitted to NSF in August 2014.

“We spent a lot of time,” Khonsari said, noting the Office of Research and Economic Development was instrumental in guiding the process. “At the end, we were convinced that we had developed a competitive proposal.”

The Consortium and Its Impact
“And we were right,” Khonsari said. On August 3, 2015, nearly a year after the proposal was submitted, the award was announced.

“I was happy to learn that the CIMM proposal was funded,” said Meng, the project’s technical lead. “This award recognizes the work we have conducted in various aspects of advanced manufacturing over the past decade, offers an opportunity for us to further elevate the reputation of advanced manufacturing research and development in Louisiana to national and international levels, and opens the door for us to develop sustained advanced manufacturing research and development programs to benefit the state of Louisiana and the nation as a whole.”

The consortium—which will be housed in the new, state-of-the-art Manufacturing Central User Facility within Patrick F. Taylor Hall, upon completion of the building’s renovation and expansion—will have a two-part focus: science and technology, and education and outreach. Within each of those broader categories, there are individual research projects and outreach initiatives that involve collaboration among the five university partners.

“The CIMM project has a tight science and technology focus,” Meng said. “The two science and technology thrusts of the program are multi-scale metal forming and laser-based 3D metal printing. There is cutting-edge and exciting research to be done to understand various physical phenomena across length and time scales that are critical to high-throughput forming of meso to micro scale metal-based structures and to 3-D printing of high-quality metal-based parts.”

Sprunger, a professor of physics and one of the co-investigators, added: "The synergy between engineering development and scientific understanding will allow us to address key scientific barriers, accelerate technology development and reduce the time from conceptualization to large-scale production.”

This research will not only provide knowledge to the wider community, but it will help industry growth, particularly in the area of manufacturing, and in turn, Louisiana economic development. It will also bring unique machinery and equipment, like lasers, to the campus for research and demonstration, widening the range of work that can be done here by LSU faculty and scholarly visitors.

Furthermore, the research will help put Louisiana “on the map,” Khonsari said, and help boost the state’s chance at eventually securing one of the 45 national manufacturing hubs proposed by President Obama.

But the CIMM project isn’t focused solely on research, Khonsari added. “The science has to win the day, but these proposals are much more than the science,” he said. “The workforce is part of it, and educational aspects are a strong part of the proposal and extends beyond the university level and into K-12, and a variety of other schools, including community colleges.”

Some examples of the educational outreach initiatives outlined in the proposal, he said, include a relationship with the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, where CIMM will use 3-D printing technology to create tangible materials for the students to help them better understand different concepts, and a program where professors will visit K-12 classrooms to give talks and demonstrations and get students excited about science and technology at a young age.

“Who knows where the next Einstein is going to come from,” Khonsari said. “If even a fraction, like 1 or 2 percent, of the students say, ‘Wow! Engineering is exciting, STEM is exciting,’ and continue on that path, just imagine what that will do for our state.”

CIMM also wants to create course modules to bring what it’s doing into the college classroom.

“I am particularly excited about weaving advanced manufacturing research and development activities of the CIMM team into course modules, so that the new knowledge we generate can be propagated to our students—the next generation of engineers, scientists and technology entrepreneurs,” Meng said. “Through such activities, we hope to contribute to the renaissance of manufacturing in the U.S. and to the economic future of the nation.”

In addition to the two-fold mission of CIMM, the project will also bring about increased collaboration among peers within the LSU College of Engineering, the LSU College of Science and the Office of Research and Economic Development; the faculty partners at the other state institutions; and leaders in industry.

Ramachandran, a professor at Louisiana Tech who is a co-investigator on both the LA-SiGMA and the CIMM projects, said it became clear during the proposal-writing process that “there is a tremendous synergy and complementarity between the strengths and expertise” of the involved parties. “We will be working hard in the coming years to leverage these aspects to the benefit of the state in the area of advanced manufacturing."

CIMM is a five-year cooperative agreement, and NSF will be heavily involved in the activities to ensure the program is accomplishing all it has set out to do. But the team is hopeful the project’s reach will extend beyond the grant’s shelf life.

“In the proposal, we have strategies for sustainability,” Khonsari said. “If activities were to come to a screeching halt in five years, we have failed. The intention is that this group, CIMM, will essentially put the ball in motion and produce demonstrable results in multi-scale metal forming and laser-based 3D metal printing in collaboration with industry. We want to see this grow. We want to see this become a vibrant center of excellence here in Louisiana.”

“This is just the beginning.”

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Article written by Sydni Dunn, communications manager for the LSU College of Engineering; Dawn Jenkins, director of communications for the LSU College of Science; and Gretchen Rhodes, research advancemant associate director for the LSU Office of Research and Economic Development. To learn more about CIMM, visithttp://cimm.wp.eng.lsu.edu/ or contact Ernie Ballard, LSU Media Relations, 225-578-5685 or eballa1@lsu.edu.