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Rise of the Machines

Biotechnology was a bust. Computer chips crashed. Now, some say Richmond's best hope is high-tech manufacturing.



Imagine you are sipping a gin and tonic as you relax in a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner thousands of feet above an ocean and hours from the nearest airport. You listen to the gentle hum of two Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 turbofan jet engines. Inside each are 20 highly precise, 112-inch-long blades. They spin as fast as 2,700 revolutions per minute at speeds as fast as 900 miles an hour in intense 1,100-degree heat keeping the jet cruising along comfortably.

The blades and their disks can do this endlessly for hours and days and perhaps as long as five years, limited only by fuel and their human cargo. Made of titanium and special alloys, the blades must be machined to extremely exacting tolerances. They need special coatings of ceramic or metal to keep them from melting in the extreme heat. If that were to happen, no amount of gin and tonic would help passengers overcome the sheer terror that would follow.

Those spinning blades represent a potentially bright new future for Richmond. It's the next big thing, having emerged in this year's presidential campaign as one of the economy's few bright spots: advanced manufacturing, which uses automation and special tools to make high performance goods with a few, highly trained workers.

The Richmond region is primed to become a hub for highly specialized widget-making, say local and state planners, politicians and area business leaders. At the geographic center of the East Coast, Richmond is easily accessible to most of the United States with solid transportation networks — multiple interstates, a major CSX rail yard and quick access to major ports in Hampton Roads. Not to mention the region's relatively good schools and low cost of living.

For Richmond, advanced manufacturing might do what once-favored biotechnology, computer chips, big box retailing and consumer finance could not: create high-end, well-paying jobs less likely to be outsourced overseas.

The epicenter of the ploy is the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, a shiny, silver building that opened in September in a tract of piney woods in Prince George County north of U.S. 460 about 10 miles east of Petersburg.

Operated by the University of Virginia, Virginia State University and Virginia Tech, along with 14 corporations led by Rolls-Royce, the center would specialize in preparing machine parts for extreme use in aircraft engines, submarines and copiers as well as using computer systems to aid in design and production. Another beneficiary will be the natural gas industry, now undergoing a surprising and massive expansion, since it needs high performance turbine blades and parts for its pipelines.

Education plays a key role at the 62,000-square-foot center, which cost $17.5 million, was partly funded through cheap bonds floated by President Barack Obama's recovery stimulus and is owned by the University of Virginia Foundation. College interns work alongside professors and company researchers on the sophisticated equipment at the center that is hoped to become a draw for more advanced manufacturing companies and their suppliers.

Should that happen, more research money would flow, cash-short public universities and community colleges would get a boost and Richmond's industrial economy could move beyond its traditional role as a middle-tech maker of cigarettes and chemicals. Similar centers have been established in Clemson, S.C., near a big BMW car plant and in the reviving Rust Belt area around Youngstown, Ohio.


One aim is to create jobs and facilities that are less likely to be packed up and moved to Asia or Latin America at the first sign of a bad financial quarter.

"Advanced manufacturing makes the labor cost a less significant component of the total cost. You can put machinery anywhere in the world you want," says Barry W. Johnson, an engineering professor and associate dean at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science. The essence is that once you take away the huge workplace advantage of less-developed countries — Chinese laborers cost 10 percent of what U.S. workers do — companies with factories already in Virginia don't have as much incentive to move operations offshore.

Intellectual fruit from the center would be shared by its 14 members and the schools or become the proprietary property of specific member companies, says David Lohr, the center's president and executive director, who is a former DuPont and biotech researcher. Within five years, Lohr hopes to expand its current five college interns to 70 studying advanced manufacturing. As more companies locate nearby, they may have jobs starting at more than $60,000 a year waiting for them.

The center is only partly finished. Its asphalt parking is still so new it has a paver's stench. Huge boxes await unpacking to move into a high-bay work area and join advanced machining and test equipment donated by such global technology names as Sweden's Sandvik, America's Chromalloy, Germany's Siemens, Japan's Canon and Switzerland's Sulzer Metco.

Although none of the company members now are Richmond based, some members have a presence nearby. There's Newport News Shipbuilding, which needs submarine parts that can withstand extreme underwater pressures, and Canon, which has a plant in Newport News that churns out high-endurance copier parts every eight seconds.

The most important company, of course, is Britain's Rolls-Royce, which played the pivotal role in creating the center. The center's partnership with state universities was key to luring Rolls in 2007, which relocated its North America headquarters to Northern Virginia and build a complex of factories at Crosspointe, a 1,000-acre tract in Prince George that is a stone's throw from the center.

Former Gov. Tim Kaine helped pool a lavish goodie package worth $56.8 million in tax breaks and financial incentives. As part of the deal, Rolls donated land for the center as universities throughout the state were invited to participate. Virginia Commonwealth University was invited but declined to join, although there's a new push to get the university involved.

Not everything went smoothly. Rolls had to make an abrupt adjustment as it rolled with the tremors rumbling through the global economy when the recession hit in 2008. At first, Rolls had planned to make parts for corporate jet engines, but that market fell apart with the downturn.

Bound by its deal with Virginia, Rolls retooled its Prince George factories to handle other products. In May 2011, Rolls opened a $170 million facility where 130 employees make commercial jet engine parts for Boeing and Airbus. Another facility worth $130 million will go up next door that will use advanced manufacturing techniques to machine airfoils. Rolls spokesman Joel Reuter says that engine components made in Prince George will be exported to engine assembly plants in Derby, England, and in Singapore. Part of the Rolls property includes 120 acres for suppliers to build their own facilities to serve the Rolls operations.



To get an idea what the center's cavernous high bay looks like, think of the 1965 James Bond thriller "Goldfinger." In it, Sean Connery roars his Aston Martin DB5, the one with the ejection seat, through a high-tech gold smelter in Switzerland owned by arch-villain Auric Goldfinger. Bond smashes up a lot of gear in a large, spotless factory room before crashing. Quickly, the master spy is strapped to an industrial laser machine where he comes close to losing some of his most important body parts and then his life.

The equipment within the high bay may not be as dramatic but one piece of gear seems especially evil-looking in a Goldfinger kind of way. The blocky, heavy rectangle with a thick door and latches resembles a gas chamber on death row of a state penitentiary. Called a plasma spray cell, the $1.5 million device has only recently been installed by Sulzer Metco, one of the founding members of the center.

Kevin Ramalal, a Sulzer Metco employee who moved to Virginia from Long Island to help install and operate the chamber, says not to worry — there's no way someone can get trapped inside. It's crucial that they don't. The purpose of the cell is to superheat a mix of gases — oxygen, argon, helium and nitrogen — to incredible temperatures, somewhere between from 20,000 degrees to 30,000 degrees Celsius.

The result is a finger-long plume of flame that strikes a powdered form of ceramics or metals. The idea is to get them soft enough so they can be sprayed against a very clean surface that could eventually be a jet engine blade or a part of a nuclear submarine. The idea is vaguely like throwing a strand of spaghetti against a kitchen wall. If it sticks, it's done.

It takes lots of time to prepare tests and analyze the results. But it's a testing method very much in demand. "We have four companies waiting to do a year's worth of research with this," says Ramalal, who says a test may take only 20 minutes but he's had some go on for 24 hours. "And I had to keep watching all the time."

Sulzer Metco, as with Mitutoyo and Sandvik, has donated hard-to-find research equipment for periods of five years as part of their membership price at the center. Mitutoyo has a device worth $150,000 that can measure objects to within four decimal points and Sandvik has offered a high-end machining tool. Blue chalk marks outline where other gear from members will go.



Indeed, high-tech manufacturing has the regional academic community licking their chops. The rage these days among politicians, newspaper editorial writers and economic development planners is training in an area known as STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It's based on fears that the United States is being outclassed by China and India, which are churning out huge numbers of technology-savvy college graduates.

Another worry is that universities are losing too much money bothering with traditional liberal arts courses, including art, foreign languages and literature. Students at the University of Mary Washington recently held protests after learning that the school's board of visitors was considering chopping such courses. Such worries got the University of Virginia into hot water last summer. Its board convinced itself that highly popular President Teresa Sullivan wasn't focused enough on technology and engineering or (erroneously) on online courses and forced her to resign. National criticism and student protests led to Sullivan's reinstatement shortly thereafter.

Backing advanced manufacturing engineering at the center in Prince George is a no-brainer for educators, especially since the Richmond area does not have a top-drawer research school. Virginia Commonwealth University may come close with its medical college but there is little else. The area had placed high hopes on its downtown Virginia Biotechnology Research Park but other than a $350 million research facility that does mostly top-secret research for Altria and its tobacco operations, the park has been a modest success at best.

The manufacturing center and its links to the new Rolls facilities can easily provide expensive brains and gear not typically accessible. In the classroom, students can do mathematical equations and study how sophisticated factories operate. But actually getting to see how they work is a rare opportunity.

"They are doing tremendous things with our manufacturing engineering programs," says Keith Williamson, dean of the School of Engineering and Technology at Virginia State in Petersburg. VSU has five faculty members attached to the center.

One advantage of having students work at Rolls through the center, says Williamson, is that it exposes them to a late model of the SAP software system, developed in Germany by former IBM engineers, that has dominated global manufacturing since the 1970s. "It's used by everybody — Dominion, Rolls, the Army and the Navy and our students will get to use it," he says.

For U.Va. and Virginia Tech, the center helps them nurture a new crop of STEM-savvy engineers through a program called Produced in Virginia. According to Barry Johnson, one goal is to use community colleges, like baseball farm clubs, to raise new crops of bright technology students who later can study at prestigious Tech or U.Va.

John Tyler Community College, not yet linked directly to the center, participates in a program wherein students can earn associate degrees in science and pre-engineering in two years. If they maintain a grade point average of at least 3.8, they are guaranteed a position at U.Va.'s School of Engineering. They can either study at the Charlottesville campus or they can use distance learning online, especially if they need to work. The program has been used in Petersburg, Danville and Lynchburg.

Four John Tyler students have completed the course, says Ray Drinkwater, vice president for student affairs. If students don't pass the 3.8 grade-point bar, they can still earn associate degrees and perhaps go to work at Rolls or other manufacturing-heavy companies, such as DuPont or Philip Morris. Production floor employees without bachelor's degrees can start at $39,000 to $40,000 with a high school degree or special training certificates. Engineering college grads can start at $65,000. One U.Va. graduate received an offer of $90,000 a year to start, Johnson says.



There are downsides to pinning the region's future to advanced manufacturing, of course. Namely, the industry has a built-in brake: Its very purpose is to produce few highly skilled workers as needed. The point is to create jobs that rely on automation to keep labor costs down and profit margins up. If that doesn't happen, workers easily could end up as layoff fodder like their brothers and sisters in the textile, furniture and tobacco industries.

Even juggernaut DuPont, which makes bullet-resistant Kevlar at its sprawling Richmond operations, plans on getting rid of more than 60 salaried workers locally among its plans to downsize 1,500 globally over the next year or so.

Since 2000, about six million factory jobs in the United States have evaporated, or about a third of the entire manufacturing industry. Oddly, some factory jobs go wanting since the average age of a skilled factory worker is about 56 and many will soon retire. Also uncertain is the stability of the founding members of the Prince George center.

Newport News Shipbuilding, for instance, is under pressure with new attention on federal budget deficits and the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which could mean that the country will likely need fewer submarines and aircraft carriers.

A sector in the national economy that has shown remarkable resilience is the automobile industry. Bailouts have revived General Motors, new management has propped up Chrysler and Ford never really weakened.

The Greater Richmond area, however, has little in the way of car-making, although the center's expansion plan calls for doubling its corporate members to about 30 within five years, Lohr says. These could include cars, says Johnson, since 35 to 40 percent of car suppliers use coatings similar to what's already being produced for Rolls-Royce in Prince George.

Other possibilities include drawing lower-tech industries, particularly related to logistics. A big dream of regional planners is to leverage a large expansion at the Army's Fort Lee in Hopewell. They would help sprout up the numerous warehouses that already dot the landscape from South Richmond to the Petersburg area. And, with commercial jetliners aging and barring another global economic meltdown, Rolls' plans to power new Dreamliners and Airbuses seems solid.

The big question, of course, is whether advanced manufacturing will do as much as promised for Richmond. An encouraging sign is that a major global corporation, Rolls-Royce, has made a serious investment in the area. Other advanced manufacturers have taken smaller steps. Manufacturing may be back in vogue, but so, at one time, were biotechnology and computer chips, which proved such bitter disappointments. S

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