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‘Rebalancing’ expands LIFT’s focus to include materials, processes and systems

Brett Brune
By Brett Brune Editor in Chief, Smart Manufacturing

Detroit-based institute becoming financially self-sustaining

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LIFT CEO Nigel Francis, right, speaks with former Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in Washington, D.C. in October 2018. Calley was preparing to speak at a Manufacturing USA congressional briefing about what LIFT has brought to Michigan’s manufacturing sector.

LIFT, the U.S. Department of Defense-supported national manufacturing innovation institute known for lightweighting materials, recently expanded the focus of its desire to “create innovations faster, better and cheaper” to the materials, processes and systems involved in moving innovations from concept to commercialization.

This year, the nearly seven year-old, Detroit-based Manufacturing USA institute jettisoned the lengthy “Lightweight Innovations For Tomorrow” name in favor of just the acronym LIFT—and added the tag line “Where manufacturing technology and talent matter,” CEO Nigel Francis said.

“We’re in the process of rebalancing, not only through the way we conduct our business, but also through the business that we’re being asked to conduct,” he added. “It’s not just us pushing in a direction. We’re actually being pulled by our members.”

While the institute is broadening its scope beyond the lightweighting of materials, that practice remains as the bedrock of its work.

Speaking with Smart Manufacturing in August, Francis noted that process and systems work has always been a “side demand” of LIFT’s mandate. “And now, because of demand from our members and industry and government, we’re moving more to focus on materials, processes and systems together holistically.” For example, with foundational funding in place from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), LIFT is involved in hypersonic weapons systems material and process development activities, which is the “top priority for the DoD,” he said.

In addition to its leadership and work in hypersonics , LIFT’s rebalancing includes interest in new verticals within additive manufacturing (AM).

Two of those areas of interest are WAAM (wire arc additive manufacturing), and another technique generally referred to as “cold spray.”

WAAM coming along

WAAM is in vogue, and for good reason: It is relatively cheap and “if it can be correctly configured, you pretty much can put a wire arc additive manufacturing end effector on the end of any robot and program the robot to follow a particular path—all of which we’re expert at doing already. Add ‘smarts’ and suddenly you can create pretty much any conventional metallic component you want with material properties that are actually pretty well understood,” Francis said.

A big barrier to the wider adoption of AM is that “the material properties of the finished component are generally not well understood,” Francis said. “A prerequisite of being able to use AM is understanding those ‘as made’ material properties. Once you do that, you can model those material properties in a computer simulation program.”

That’s important because in bigger engineering organizations, the physical validation loop has not completely gone away, he noted: “It is critical that ICME models are available for these new AM processes. Otherwise, we’ll be forced back into a time- and budget-costly physical verification and validation loop for our AM-made products.”

To support the computer simulation of material properties, LIFT has been working diligently in and leading Integrated Computational Materials Engineering, or ICME, which Francis calls “the way forward.”

LIFT’s expertise in ICME—looking at the material at a molecular and near-molecular level to see how a process will affect that material and its “as made” properties—led to it and its partners correcting large-scale distortions in the manufacturing process of very large naval vessels.

By modeling and then choosing a different sequence for the vessels’ welding process, the partners achieved “a radical reduction in the distortions in these very large structures, making them able to be produced faster, better, and cheaper,” Francis said. It also turned out vessels that performed better in service “because the external surface of the vessels is closer to ‘as-designed’ dimensions, making for nearer-to-perfect parts,” he added.

Cold spray shows LIFT’s true colors

Cold spray, a form of metal deposition that involves projecting very small metallic particles through a spray nozzle, has “some very clear benefits, not the least of which is that it’s potentially portable into forward areas of a battlefield,” Francis said. It can also be used on maritime vessels, such as large ships or submarines.

This technology lets warfighters take the repair process with them rather than having to bring what needs to be repaired back to a base location. Cold spray could be used to repair a hole shot in a military vehicle, or to repair in situ a corroded hatch on a ship or to repair automotive large sheet metal dies.

Cold spray demonstrates how LIFT is “not so much a research institute as a development institute,” Francis said. “It’s small research, big development. We want to catch those good ideas, evaluate whether they’ve got a business case, and then help those ideas and the people behind them across this ‘valley of death’ so that we can get it faster into commercialization and, as far as the DoD is concerned, into the warfighters hands.”

Top of mind at LIFT is “creating a competitive edge for U.S. industry,” he said. “We’d be very foolish sitting here thinking we’re the only people in the world coming out with good ideas. There’s a global window of opportunity for industry: If you can deploy the technology faster than your global competitor, you are going to be more competitive.”

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LIFT CEO Nigel Francis speaks at the Boy Scouts of America’s Third Annual Exploring’s Discover Your Future Banquet—where he received a leadership award.

Workforce-development focus sharpened

As a public-private partnership, LIFT is connected to the federal government, Fortune 500 industry, small and medium-sized enterprises, and research universities. Additionally, it is linked with “many hundreds of vocational academic partners,” Francis said.

Innovation without the people “is no good and vice versa,” he said. So, LIFT is doubling down on its talent development program

One element is Operation Next, which began as a program to give separating veterans the opportunity to train in advanced manufacturing six months before they leave their military service.

“It has been very successfully launched,” he said. “At the moment, it’s at one very large military facility, which is Fort Campbell [an Army base that straddles the Kentucky–Tennessee border]. And, with help from the DoD, we’re now expanding that program across the nation. Over the next two years, there will be 12 more major installations that will have that program.”

The DoD last November gave LIFT a $5 million grant to expand Operation Next. The program offers three training tracks: CNC (computerized numerical control) and machining; industrial technology maintenance, and welding.

The program will also soon break out of serving only warfighters and include military spouses and industry workers in Detroit and Pittsburgh.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently awarded LIFT $1 million to expand the program to reskill/upskill civilian workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in Detroit and Pittsburgh. The award is funded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

On the workforce development front, LIFT also has developed a new advanced manufacturing curriculum called Ignite: Mastering manufacturing.

“With Ignite, we’re educating high school students in the foundational elements of advanced manufacturing,” Francis said. “Pre-COVID, we had about 150 students every day of the week going through our LIFT Learning Lab in our facility in Detroit.”

Scaling both the Learning Lab and the Ignite curriculum across Michigan and across the country is a big priority going forward, he noted.

Institute gains three platinum members

The start of moving away from solely focusing on lightweighting to smarter manufacturing came after Francis and Chief Technology Officer Hadrian Rori visited the institute’s larger members last year, Francis said.

That expansion of focus has brought along new—and larger—members to the institute: In the last year, Siemens, Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence and Kearney joined LIFT as platinum members, the organization’s highest level of membership.

“They are here [as platinum members] because they get it, and because we get it,” Francis said.

“Siemens can actually stitch everything together that you need in this universe of smarter manufacturing, and do lots of other things by the way,” he added. “Hexagon is one of the largest measurement sciences and sensing companies in the world. Kearney is one of the major management consulting companies in the world with a very strong reputation and practice related to operational effectiveness.”

Francis, who joined LIFT about two and a half years ago, knows some of the executives from those companies well. “Some of them I’ve known for 15 or 20 years,” including his tenure “setting up the advanced technologies development center for one of the largest automotive suppliers in the world [American Axle],” he said. “They know that I understand what they understand—and what industry needs to understand in the medium and small companies.”

Self-sustaining at last

Along with expanding its focus and then its industry base with its new platinum members, LIFT has reached the point where it is sustainable, which was the original five-year goal for each of the national manufacturing innovation institutes.

LIFT’s original funding and contract with the DoD was set to expire in February last year, which meant Francis had a serious challenge in front of him when he took the helm in June 2018.

“The institute did a really good job of standing itself up and did some great work but didn’t pay attention to the fact that it needed to be sustainable,” he said. “We have corrected that.”

The sustainability comes from a blended financial model, which includes dues-paying members, support from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and working with the military branches directly where they are “sending us money to carry out very specific tasks for them,” Francis said.

For example, LIFT in July signed a pact with the U.S. Army’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center to develop new manufacturing methods for vehicles with wheels and tracks.

“That really was the tipping point for our sustainability,” he said, noting that LIFT is working on a similar contract with the Navy. “Those two things together take us way, way past the point of sustainability.”

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