President Barack Obama touted the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, a private-partnership between Rolls Royce North America and Virginia Tech and other leading Virginia universities during his March 9 visit to the Rolls–Royce Crosspointe plant in Prince George County, Va.
Obama likened the center as a blueprint for his proposed, new National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. Budgeted at $1 billion, the network will consist of more than a dozen Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation around the nation, each serving as a regional manufacturing hub designed to increase manufacturer competition and encourage U.S. investment,” according to the White House.
“It’s a partnership between manufacturers – including this one – U.Va., Virginia Tech, Virginia State University … the Commonwealth and the federal government,” Obama said of the center. “So think of this as a place where companies can share access to cutting-edge capabilities. At the same time, students and workers are picking up new skills. They’re training on state-of-the-art equipment; they’re solving some of the most important challenges facing our manufacturers.”
A White House memo stated, “[The center] bridges the gap from basic research to product development and supports the skills needed for an advanced manufacturing workforce. Additionally, Obama announced a $45 million pilot institute for manufacturing innovation as part of its We Can’t Wait efforts.
With a strong nod to his 2012 campaigning, Obama also used the speech to rally recent climbs in hiring across the nation.
In addition to the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering already is part of another collaborative effort with Rolls-Royce. The Commonwealth Center for Aerospace Propulsion Systems has a more direct focus on aerospace work, for which Rolls-Royce is world famous.
The Prince George County Rolls-Royce facility manufactures precision-engineered engine discs and other components for aircraft, according to the company’s website. It now employs 150 people at an 18,000-square-foot facility, and hundreds more are expected to be employed as the company expands operations. The President also is expected to tour the facility before giving his speech.
Roughly a mile from the plant, on land donated by Rolls-Royce, is the under-construction, 60,000-square-foot, $13 million Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing building. It will house a research center dedicated to forging new paths in manufacturing technologies, surface engineering, and other areas in aerospace shipbuilding, automotive, energy, and transportation industries, with Virginia Tech College of Engineering faculty and graduate students heading those efforts, in conjunction with center partners from the University of Virginia and Virginia State University, along with a number of corporate partners, including Rolls-Royce, of course, and Cannon, Siemens, Sandvik and Newport News Shipbuilding, among others.
Virginia Tech personnel will be based at the facility at least part of the year after it opens, expected in fall 2012, said Leo. Many more will be employed there as well. Work already is underway at the nonprofit consortium in temporary offices near both the Crosspointe facility and the center construction site.
College of Engineering leaders represented Virginia Tech at the speech, which drew more than 1,500 people. In attendance were Richard C. Benson, dean of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering; Bev Watford, associate dean for academic affairs; Don Leo, vice president and executive director of Virginia tech’s National Capital Region Operations; and Melissa Hughes of Blacksburg, Va., a mechanical engineering major and the first undergraduate from the university to intern with Rolls-Royce, among others.
“The Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing epitomizes the economic gains that can be achieved when technological leaders from industry partner with great universities, all supported by state government,” Benson said. “Our students will see many benefits, including exposure to cutting-edge technologies, enhanced internship opportunities, and opportunities to work with practicing engineers all around the world. I am delighted that President Obama has taken notice of this exemplary partnership, and I hope that our model of collaboration will inspire other industry-university-government partnerships elsewhere in the country.”
“Our business model indicates that after a 10-year period, (the center) itself might employ a total of 50 full-time employees, with an additional 50 to 100 part-time employees,” said Leo in fall 2010, when he was associate dean of research and graduate studies for the College of Engineering. “In addition, we want (the center) to be viewed as a competitive advantage for other companies to locate in Virginia and to locate in the Petersburg area.”
The Commonwealth Center for Aerospace Propulsion Systems, the second collaborative research effort between Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and Rolls-Royce, is a more traditional research entity, with faculty, graduate students working on designated projects at their home-base universities. Faculty already are researching power electronics, the effect of sand and dust sucked into jet engines, and jet afterburners, said Leo. A jet propulsion lab has been proposed for Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center.
Virginia faced stiff competition as one of eight states vying to land the Rolls-Royce North America plant in 2007. The company was lured to the commonwealth in no small by the combined efforts of the three universities offering the company the benefits of faculty research expertise and the ability to educate a skilled workforce. Rolls-Royce has since forged a strong bond with Virginia Community College System, particularly John Tyler Community College in Prince George, to provide worker training.
Denise Young of Virginia Tech’s University Relations contributed to this story.