A consortium based in the New River Valley, in partnership with Danville and Southern Virginia organizations, plans to showcase the region’s strengths in additive manufacturing and advanced materials as it competes with other groups in Virginia and around the country for potentially tens of millions of dollars in federal Tech Hubs grant money.
“Additive manufacturing” is essentially 3D printing but on an industrial scale. It’s a computer-controlled process of building things by adding layer upon layer, as opposed to more traditional “subtractive” processes that create parts by removing material from a source.
“Advanced materials” is a broad term that refers to creating metal alloys, polymers, ceramics and other innovative substances for a range of industries. These can improve products in a variety of ways, such as by being cheaper, lighter, stronger or more durable than the alternatives.
“Additive manufacturing provides a lot of potential for changing the way in which we manufacture anything, and it has a lot of potential for bringing manufacturing back to the United States and into Virginia,” said Chris Williams, L.S. Randolph Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, which is one of the consortium members.
“Even though it’s been around for quite a while, we see that its adoption has been somewhat stymied because there’s not a big range of materials available that can be printed layer by layer. To do this the right way, we have to design materials to be printed.”
Virginia Tech’s mechanical engineering department operates a research lab focused on additive manufacturing. The region is home to companies such as Christiansburg-based MELD Manufacturing, which makes additive manufacturing machines using patented technology, and the Floyd County facility of Hollingsworth & Vose, a Massachusetts-based maker of advanced materials used in filters, batteries and other applications.
With the capabilities of those entities and more than a dozen other consortium members at hand, the New River Valley/Danville group hopes the U.S. Economic Development Administration will designate the region as one of at least 20 planned tech hubs. The EDA program aims to boost the U.S. economy and national security by focusing on regions that can be globally competitive within a decade in critical technologies while geographically diversifying federal economic investment.
During the program’s first phase, select applicants will get an approximately $500,000 strategy development grant and/or designation as a tech hub. During a second phase this fall, those designated as tech hubs during the first phase can compete for a handful of implementation grants of $50 million to $75 million to bring their economic development strategies to fruition.
Each applicant must be a consortium, not an individual group, and must include representatives from specific categories such as higher education, industry and government. The New River Valley/Danville consortium is led by the New River Valley Regional Commission, said Kevin Byrd, the commission’s executive director.
Besides Virginia Tech, MELD Manufacturing and Hollingsworth & Vose, consortium members include Radford University; New River Community College; MELD PrintWorks, a spinoff of MELD Manufacturing that produces parts through additive manufacturing; Fastech, a Danville-based 3D metal printing and engineering firm; and Volvo, which has a truck plant in Dublin.
Also joining the consortium are the Virginia Manufacturers Association, the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, the Verge alliance, the New River/Mount Rogers Workforce Development Board, Onward New River Valley, the Southern Virginia Regional Alliance and the Danville-based Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, Byrd said. The counties of Floyd, Giles, Montgomery and Pulaski and the cities of Danville and Radford are members, too.
“The focus of this tech hub is going to be to help small and medium-sized manufacturers adopt the technologies and implement them in their processes. I think that’s really where our uniqueness for this regional proposal comes out,” Byrd said.
The New River Valley-based group will have competition from fellow Virginians as it seeks Tech Hub funding. Lynchburg-area and Southwest Virginia groups are collaborating on a tech hub proposal to highlight the nuclear industry, while a Richmond-area proposal focuses on artificial intelligence.
As the program’s application deadline of Tuesday nears, it’s unclear how many proposals will come from Virginia.
Because it’s a federally funded program, regions around Virginia can apply directly, noted Suzanne Clark, spokesperson for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
“VEDP has been requested to support several proposals with data, etc., but there could be proposals in progress around the Commonwealth that have not engaged VEDP,” Clark said in an email. “For that reason, we wouldn’t be able to give a definitive number of the expected proposals from Virginia or disclose which ones we have supported.”
Backers of the NRV-based tech hub believe that the work they’re proposing could have important implications in two areas that have gotten recent attention from the Biden administration: electric vehicles and supply-chain improvements.
One example of a practical application of additive manufacturing and advanced materials is reducing the weight of electric vehicles, which typically are heavier than similarly sized gas-powered vehicles because their batteries are heavier than gas engines.
“We need the ability to use 3D printing and advanced materials to light-weight the vehicle, which means we can go further, faster, or carry more payload,” said Williams, the Virginia Tech professor.
Proponents of additive manufacturing also point to its ability to quickly make customized parts, helping businesses avoid supply-chain delays.
Nanci Hardwick, CEO of MELD Manufacturing, said customers are telling her company that they are having to wait one to two years for forged metal components.
“One of the main things driving international attention to MELD technology is the shortage of large forged parts,” Hardwick said. “Forging is a common place for metal components to begin. If you can’t get a block of metal big enough to make your part out of, you can’t make your part. … Additive can take a small, easily accessible amount of metal and turn it into a big component.”
Hollingsworth & Vose operates a research and development lab and two filtration media production sites in Floyd County. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Defense contracted with the company’s Floyd operation to produce face masks and ventilator filters. The company now is investing in nanofiber research and production.
“H&V will work with the NRV Tech Hub to advance nonwoven materials that are highly effective in capturing harmful pollutants while providing the benefits of clean air, liquid, and energy,” the company wrote in a letter supporting the tech hub proposal.
The regional collaboration behind the consortium’s tech hub proposal builds off a federal Build Back Better competition entry led by Virginia Tech last year, Byrd said. But while that proposal — which was a contest finalist but ultimately did not win a federal funding award — focused on transportation, this year the focus is on the region’s applied science and technology that can benefit not just transportation but other industries, too.
“We know we have unique assets here. What is it that distinguishes our region? And I think that this tech hub proposal genuinely takes that to that next step,” Byrd said.
If the consortium ultimately earns one of the second-phase, multimillion-dollar awards, it could help the region invest in new equipment, create new spaces for manufacturing and materials testing, and overall continue to develop the area as a destination for advanced manufacturing, said John Provo, executive director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Economic and Community Engagement.
“This will take what might be a 20-year horizon on our own growth and accelerate it,” Provo said.
Hardwick, of MELD Manufacturing, said additive manufacturing is a new industry that offers a lot of opportunity.
“What I believe would be possible with this funding and the organizational assets already here is for our community to be a capital of additive manufacturing,” she said.
The EDA has indicated that there is heavy interest in the Tech Hubs program nationwide. On Thursday, the agency announced it was easing certain technical requirements for consortia registering to use the EDA’s online grant management platform, citing “the high volume of applications.”
While Tech Hubs is a nationwide program, among its requirements is that the 20-plus hubs must be distributed across the EDA’s six regions, with at least three hubs per region. Virginia is in the southern end of a region that runs up to Maine.
Tech hubs must also focus on equity and diversity. Byrd said the NRV proposal will do that by serving a region that has a higher-than-average rate of poverty and a lower-than-average labor force participation rate, and by incorporating a workforce development strategy that includes at-risk youth, the formerly incarcerated and those in addiction recovery.
Receiving the program’s initial planning grant would help the New River Valley/Danville consortium bring stakeholders together and figure out the project’s next steps, such as developing the relevant technologies and assisting manufacturers in adopting them, Williams said.
“This is all about creating a globally competitive hub of excellence in this technology area, and that’s our goal,” he said.