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$24 Million Partnership to Advance Next Generation Manufacturing Technologies in Kentucky

December 17, 2019

Rodney Andrews, professor of chemical engineering, is PI on the project.

By Jenny Wells-Hosley


Manufacturing has fueled the economic success of Kentucky for over two centuries, and a new collaborative partnership will help position the Commonwealth for even more success in the years to come.

The Kentucky National Science Foundation's (NSF) EPSCoR, or Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, has awarded the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and six other institutions across the state a five-year, $24 million grant to support the fundamental science needed to advance next generation manufacturing technologies, flexible electronics and robotics. The grant will also support the development of a greater STEM-literate workforce.

"This cooperative project will help bolster Kentucky's economy, create jobs and put the Commonwealth at the forefront of automation and human-machine interaction," said UofL president Neeli Bendapudi and UK president Eli Capilouto, in a joint statement. "Kentucky is at its best when our brightest minds are working together to answer our toughest questions. We are dreaming boldly, so that we might achieve greatly, and we can't wait to see what this group will accomplish."

The project, titled the Kentucky Advanced Partnership for Enhanced Robotics and Structures (or KAMPERS), will harness the collective research power of 40 multidisciplinary researchers from the eight Kentucky universities and colleges, which include UK, UofL, Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), Kentucky State University (KSU), Morehead State University (MSU), Somerset Community College, Transylvania University (TU) and Western Kentucky University (WKU). Each of these institutions has developed niche areas of expertise to become leaders in next-generation manufacturing technologies.

The research results will have applications in the construction of components for robotic and autonomous systems in areas as diverse as elder care, home service, health care, education and other collaborative human-robot interactions.

"This (grant) pulls people together and allows Kentucky to jump into a leadership position — that doesn't exist without this investment," said Seth DeBolt, professor in the UK Department of Horticulture and co-investigator on the project. "We've got UK, the flagship, land-grant university; we've got a dynamic metro university, UofL; we have regional universities throughout the state; and we have a really good community and technical college system. We're partnering with every one of those institutions in this effort and that's what's really incredible about this because we have to build intellectual infrastructure that's going to last generations."

KAMPERS will hire, educate and mentor eight new faculty, and an average of five post docs and 28 graduate students per year. It will also offer opportunities for undergraduate researchers, creating a ripple effect of experience throughout the state and country.

The grant also aims to increase underrepresented minorities in these fields, including African Americans, Hispanics and women.

"It's important that we don't leave out parts of our talent pool," said Rodney Andrews, director of Kentucky NSF EPSCoR, UK professor of chemical engineering and principal investigator of the project. "(That includes) underrepresented minority students; it may be first-generation students from Appalachia; or it may be students that are at the comprehensive universities who have a strong interest in doing research and contributing to a program like this."

These efforts will be led by Czarena Crofcheck, a UK biosystems and agricultural engineering professor, who is serving as co-investigator for education and workforce development on the project.

"We have funding opportunities, so we invite proposals for a variety of things, including education outreach events, whether they're for girls in STEM, or underrepresented minorities at the K-12 level," Crofcheck said. "We also have funding available to support undergraduates who want to do internships, as well as research experiences that are tied to advanced manufacturing."

Research for the KAMPERS project will fall into three categories: materials, device configuration and systems. Co-investigators of research include DeBolt, UK C.W. Hammond Professor of Chemistry John Anthony and UofL electrical and computer engineering Professor Dan O. Popa. Popa and his team are working in all three research areas, with a special emphasis on collaborative robotics.

"As we introduce more robots in the manufacturing environment, they have to be more intelligent and they have to be chaperoned and taught by the workers — in a way that doesn't take jobs but creates more opportunities," Popa said. "The idea would be for robots and people to work together. Robots to use their strength, for instance, or the precision, and humans to use what they're better at, which is intelligence, decision-making capabilities and so on. How do they interface with one another? How can the two essentially learn to collaborate and more effectively get something done?"

Anthony's team has an interest in hybridizing the printed electronic process with the 3D printing process.

"You could incorporate electronics within the structure of whatever it is you're printing, whether it's the skin of a drone or a prosthetic arm," Anthony said. "That would allow you to incorporate things like sensing, logic and communication directly within the structure. And the user can decide exactly what configuration and conformation they want — you just plug and play, the same way you do with 3D printing, but with an electronic component. We can put electronics anywhere this way."

These examples of advanced manufacturing research will be at the core of the KAMPERS project over the next five years — something Andrews says will place Kentucky at a much higher level of competitiveness.

"This is really not a five-year research project — it's an investment over five years to carry on through the future," Andrews said. "With this, we're training students for those jobs of the future, to give them the opportunity here, in this state, to grow these new types of manufacturing and materials and systems, so that we can expand the state's economy and have a real and significant impact on the state."

EPSCoR will fund $20 million, while $2.5 million comes from matching dollars from the Cabinet of Economic Development. An additional $1.5 million in commitments come from the institutions themselves. To watch a 25-minute video about the grant partnership, visit http://kynsfepscor.org/advanced-manufacturing/.

Working in collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF), Kentucky’s NSF EPSCoR assists to strengthen research and education in science and engineering. The vision of the KY NSF EPSCoR is to advance, encourage and develop long term improvements in scientific discovery, innovation and education throughout the Commonwealth.

KY NSF EPSCoR endeavors to build the national research competitiveness of Kentucky researchers and students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.