Tony Schmitz, Professor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and ORNL Joint Faculty, and Joannie Harmon, Workforce Director, IACMI

Editor’s note: In 2020, the Institute for Advanced Composites Innovation (IACMI) in Knoxville launched America’s Cutting Edge, a workforce training initiative developed by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, professor Tony Schmitz to close the skills gap and restore American dominance in machine tool technology and innovation.

Manufacturing is a key component to Tennessee’s economy, but statistics reveal that the workforce is waning. America’s Cutting Edge (ACE) seeks to bridge the skills gap – at no cost to participants. 

The Institute for Advanced Composites Innovation (IACMI), through an agreement with the Department of Defense’s Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment (IBAS) program, is leading the ACE training program aimed at creating a national network to increase workforce pipelines for machine tooling and advanced machining. ACE offers training modules in computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining, metrology, additive manufacturing, and machine learning to grow the Tennessee workforce.

In 2020, we launched the program with the support of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s scientific expertise for machine tool technology development and advancement. The online and in-person training components of ACE are intended to help the nation recover, advance, and sustain technical and manufacturing positions – all to enable a strong, resilient and responsive U.S. industrial base through research and workforce efforts.

The ACE approach

ACE brings together the scientific expertise of ORNL, advanced training content and tools developed at UTK, and the proven workforce development capabilities of IACMI.

Leveraging advanced computing, robotics, and material design capabilities, ACE rapidly develops innovative machine tool technologies to dramatically improve precision, efficiency and productivity – all key to restoring America’s global competitiveness in the machine tools sector and in advanced manufacturing. 

The ACE approach puts manufacturers at the center of its strategy. ACE focuses on training new experts, improving cost effectiveness especially for small and medium manufacturers and machine shops, researching and developing productivity innovations, and developing partnerships to commercialize advancements.

Program design

ACE uses free online and in-person, hands-on training to connect top national experts with students and incumbent industrial workers from all backgrounds, levels of education, and work experience to catalyze awareness and interest in all facets of machining, including software development, metrology, design, operation, and entrepreneurship. 

The ACE program is moving quickly to grow its network of training centers. Today, all in-person training is conducted at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville or Pellissippi State Community College. Roane State Community College is gearing up to offer in-person boot camps. And, additional training centers will be opening soon in Florida, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia. To date, ACE has delivered online courses in CNC machining to more than 3,000  participants from all 50 states and in-person bootcamps to more than 150 students in Tennessee, all at no cost to participants.

Introduction of this technology to students early in their education enables them to make an informed choice about their career path, which may not have initially included manufacturing. Those in industry are learning about new technologies and processes to drive efficiencies. There is a great deal of synergy in Eastern Tennessee expanding beyond Knoxville’s testbed. High schools, community colleges, and Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) are eager to integrate the ACE program into their current content and make it part of their strategy to recruit new students and engage with industry. 

Industry impact

This initiative helps recruit new students for apprenticeships, as well as two-year and four-year education programs. ACE also aids in up-skilling for those already in the industry. For example, the CNC machining training includes content on machining vibrations and the metrology training covers measurement uncertainty. This training also aids workers considering a career change to manufacturing by introducing key topics for anyone interested in exploring the potential for a career or advancement within the machine tool industry. 

ACE is already transferring resulting technologies to U.S. machine tool manufacturers. One ACE-developed tool has saved small and medium U.S. machine tool shops more than 55,000 machine hours and $5 million in costs — with potential savings for the broader U.S. industry reaching into the billions across the roughly 30,000 machine shops in the U.S.

ACE ultimately seeks to eliminate the current shortfall in manufacturing talent faced by Tennessee’s manufacturing industry. ACE is recruiting and training all elements of the ecosystem from machinists to designers to entrepreneurs. As ACE continues to develop a national network of training locations through its hub and spoke model, the program is positioned to make a significant impact on the future of the U.S. manufacturing workforce. Learn more about ACE and how to register here.

Sign up for TAEBC’s newsletter to learn more about our members, advanced energy news and upcoming events. Or, if you’re not already a member, become a member today!