UMass Amherst unveils high-tech labs

  • Jay Ash, third from left, who is the secretary of the state Department of Housing and Economic Development, shakes hands with University of Massachusetts professor Sundar Krishnamurty, who is the head of the Center for e-Design Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, in a 3-D printing lab during a tour of the 150 million upgrade to the Life Sciences Labroratories, Friday. Looking on are, from left, Kristen Carlson, who is the president of the Western Massachusetts National Tooling and Machining Association, State Rep. Solomon Goldstein-Rose and Peter Reinhart, who is the director of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass.

For The Recorder
Monday, July 03, 2017

AMHERST — More than 100 firms both big and small gathered Friday at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the grand opening of fancy new laboratories meant to push the advanced manufacturing industry forward in the region.

Located inside the Institute for Applied Science building, which officially opened last year, the advanced manufacturing core facilities labs and their high-tech equipment are open to UMass researchers and any company that wants to rent the space and apparatuses, or pay for proof-of-concept prototypes to be made. Some of the state-of-the-art machines are the only ones publicly available in the entire country.

“This is awesome,” said Jim Gosselin, the president of the Westfield-based specialized tool and accessory company Genevieve Swiss Industries. “It’s a great step for our state legislators to recognize the field.”

That support from state government came in the form of $95 million from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public agency that oversees a $1-billion investment initiative proposed in 2007 by then Gov. Deval Patrick and approved by the legislature. To date, the initiative has doled out more than $429 million in capital infrastructure grants statewide.

Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Baker threw more support behind those investments earlier this month with a legislative proposal for an additional $500 million over five years to be managed by the center.

“We’re spending more and more money, some of that billion dollars, to help support the growth of manufacturing here,” Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash told the crowd of manufacturers. “Our strategy is very simple: we’re going to find the smartest people who are the best innovators, and we’re going to throw lots of money at them.”

Ash said a substantial piece of Baker’s initiative would be dedicated to increasing the number of internships and apprenticeships in the manufacturing field. The MLSC has already spent $62 million on, among other things, labs in middle and high schools, subsidizing internships and creating education programs for the state’s workforce.

UMass Amherst Provost Katherine Newman spoke after Ash, and made clear the necessity of an increased focus on workforce education. In the field of advanced manufacturing, she said, companies have to be nimble and consistently keep up with rapidly changing technology.

“In order to do that, their workforce has to be continually trained and retrained to meet the demands of the markets,” she said. “And that’s a challenge.”

To that end, Newman said that UMass Amherst is working with regional colleges, technical high schools and tech companies in the Pioneer Valley to organize a research and training initiative, which she called a “manufacturing college” that would provide hands-on apprenticeships and other educational opportunities.

It is that kind of partnership, she said, that will drive the industry forward in the region. So to, the day’s speakers said, would the new labs everyone came to see.

In addition to the $95 million in state money, the university itself invested $55 million in the facilities, which were on full display Friday as university officials took attendees on tours.

The five laboratories opened to the public Friday serve a large number of purposes that manufacturers will find appealing: roll-to-roll fabrication for nanomanufacturing; 3-D printing for wearable medical devices and biosensors; verification of those types of wearable and point-of-care medical devices; sensor integration; and high-frequency sensor development, including the only publicly available machine that measures frequencies into the terahertz range.

To the untrained eye, the technology resembles space-age tools for esoteric purposes. But those in the advanced manufacturing industry have a very clear sense of how centers like this one at UMass Amherst will benefit their work.

One of those industry leaders at the event was Kristin Carlson, president of both the Westfield firm Peerless Precision and the Western Massachusetts Chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association.

“Innovation centers play an extremely important role in providing resources to our industry that assist us in improving our processes, exploring new technology, tooling solutions and much more,” she said.

Carlson told the story of projects her firm undertook with help from the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, a nonprofit innovation center in East Hartford.

For one project, the client wanted a brand new style of part that no other supplier was making. Carlson’s firm had to purchase a new machine to make the part, and the client quickly upped their order from 10 pieces at a time to 200.

“We needed to find a way to keep up with the increased demand using technology that was brand new to us,” she said.

The center was able to help them improve and optimize the programs they used to make the part, saving the firm valuable money and ensuring the part was of top quality. The company is now shipping thousands of those parts, in various styles, every year.

“I really can not stress enough how beneficial it is to have these innovation centers around for us to take advantage of,” she said. “I’m thrilled to see UMass adding to the resources they have available to assist Peerless Precision, the members of the NTMA and the advanced manufacturing community as a whole.”