Higher Education, Manufacturing, and Technology

WMU has critical role in $171M initiative

Innovative manufacturing advances flexible hybrid electronic technologies on national scale.

September 4, 2015
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Western Michigan University has been selected as one of the institutions across the country that will participate in a new $171 million manufacturing innovation initiative, which was announced last week by Ashton Carter, the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute will be the newest member of the Obama administration's Nationwide Network for Manufacturing Innovation, or NNMI, which is intended to scale up advanced flexible hybrid electronic manufacturing technologies and processes.

The institute will be centered in California, with Silicon Valley's FlexTech Alliance leading the initiative.

WMU has partnered with FlexTech for the past several years and will play a critical role as a partner in the initiative, which includes the creation of the Flexible Electronics Applications and Technology — FEAT — Center at the university specifically to support the initiative.

Massood Atashbar, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Margaret Joyce, professor of chemical and paper engineering, helped write the winning proposal with FlexTech, and will serve as core subject matter experts and directors of the FHE NNMI.

WMU is one of four “thematic node” centers around the nation named in the Nationwide Network for Manufacturing Innovation proposal.

“This is not a center for research; it's a center for manufacturing,” Joyce said.

“The focus of the center will be to assist industry in the scale-up of their technologies and to identify new technology needs in the process.

“We will be working on technologies that will protect our military and enrich the lives of U.S. consumers.”

WMU’s role will be to work with materials suppliers to build a materials registry and to assist companies with the scale-up of their technologies.

“That will involve developing, test forms, establishing testing protocols, creating and documenting standard operating procedures, and training educators and the industrial work force, as well,” Joyce said.

The initiative’s national network will work together to create technologies that meet the expressed needs of the military and can be transitioned to consumer markets. They will include new generations of flexible sensors that will have consumer uses for communication, human performance monitoring, health care, energy management and data mining, as well as applications on the battlefield.

Atashbar said there have been several technologies created for the U.S. military that have been adapted for consumer use.

He said one possibility that could be developed is flexible sensors that can replace the need for needles and blood drawing.

“Currently, drawing blood is an invasive process,” Atashbar said.

“Imagine, instead of using a needle, we use these flexible or smart patches to measure the body chemistry by analyzing biomolecules in sweat. We would be able to continuously monitor the patient’s condition or war fighters.”

He added, “There are a variety of industries looking for small, reliable and cost-effective flexible sensors that monitor environmental, physical, chemical and biological parameters.”

The global market in flexible hybrid electronics, now at nearly $13 billion, is expected to top $77 billion by 2025, according to WMU experts.

According to Atashbar, WMU’s collaboration in the initiative already has attracted the support of 10 companies and four other universities.

The Manufacturing Innovation Institute is the seventh such entity funded since President Barack Obama unveiled the idea during his 2013 State of the Union address.

Obama asked Congress to authorize investment — to be matched by private and non-federal funds — to create an initial network of up to 15 institutes.

The purpose is to create a competitive, effective and sustainable manufacturing-research-to-manufacturing-production infrastructure for U.S. industry and academia to solve industry-relevant problems.

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