Innovation Institutes Deserve a Closer Look

Feb. 2, 2014

We used to get advanced technology as trickledown from the military, the cold war arms race, NASA, national labs, well-endowed universities and serious basic research centers run by great American companies. Today, many of those avenues are weakened or broken, and we can sure use help from these new centers for collaboration among universities, industry and government.

In my humble opinion, my colleague’s comments below and his linked posting don’t go far enough to express the potential of these innovation institutes for improving manufacturing technology directly related to process control. We used to get advanced technology as trickledown from the military, the cold war arms race, NASA, national labs, well-endowed universities and serious basic research centers maintained by great American companies of any significant size (in the 1980s, even the little 120-person magnet company I worked for had the research chops to develop the world’s finest ferrite and rare-earth magnets).

Today, many of those avenues are weakened or broken, and maybe they weren’t the most effective (or cost-effective) in the first place. Along with what’s left of them, we can sure use help from these centers for collaboration among universities, industry and government. So I urge you to learn a little more about them, perhaps first by reading the government’s press release on the opening of the third center in North Carolina and also by reading the comments we recently received from one of the participating manufacturers, which I’ve pasted below:

Silicon Valley to Wide-Bandgap Valley?

Semiconductor manufacturing R&D hub promises new products and new industries

By Greg Scheu, president and CEO of ABB Inc. and regional manager for North America

ABB is a global pioneer in wide-bandgap semiconductors research, dating back to our widely praised breakthroughs in Silicon Carbide research in the 1990s. ABB has been following closely the development of wideband gap semiconductors because we have a wide array of products that employ power electronics as an essential ingredient. These include solar- and wind-power inverters and converters; low- and medium-voltage drives for propulsion, pumping and compression for such things as ship propulsion and oil and gas pumping; industrial motors; electric car charging; and high-voltage direct current (HVDC) converters.

The promise here is for new semiconductor materials to be used for everything from smart phones to smart grids. A greater potential for renewable energy can be unleashed when we make these semiconductors and products reliable, especially at high voltages, and make them cost-effective. To me, that is the challenge the president issued to American business on January, 15, 2014. My views and predictions:

This $140 million manufacturing hub in Raleigh – combining 18 companies and many universities and labs – has the potential to fast-forward development of some products by at least a decade. We expect that consumers will start to see some low-voltage products, like residential solar, coming out the quickest and within five years. The high-power products like industrial motors and drives and high-voltage gear will take a few more years to come to market, mainly due to the rigorous reliability testing requirements of the electric utility industry.

I see it this way: The president asked industry to work together and see where we can replace Silicon with other semiconductor materials to reduce energy loss – meaning huge energy efficiency – for equipment that can handle higher voltages, higher temperatures and higher frequencies. To me, this is the goal. And this is where the imagination takes off. For example, can we cut electric consumption of industrial motors -- one of largest uses of power – in half? Can wind and solar converters and inverters become more affordable? Can we make car chargers and data center power supplies more compact?

We are talking about new products, new applications and possibly new industries.

 ABB is positioned to lead the way here because we make power semiconductors and we make the power electronics for many of these applications today. They include:

* Converters used in industrial motors and drives. We lead this global market, and the largest U.S. industrial motor maker, Baldor Electric, is an ABB company;

* Efficient solar inverters to reduce power loss, including products from Power One, another ABB company;

* High-voltage products, such as high voltage DC (HVDC) equipment; and

* Emerging low- voltage applications, such as electric vehicle technology and solar micro-inverters and power supplies.

 These are just the immediate areas that relate to ABB’s work, but WGB materials can also improve lighting, satellites, electric cars and other applications.

 About ABB facilities

 ABB manufactures power electronics inverters and converters in New Berlin, Wisc., Fort Smith, Ark., Richmond, Va., and Phoenix, Ariz., for wind, solar, power supplies and industrial motor applications. The ABB family of companies – including Baldor and Thomas & Betts – have dozens of other manufacturing facilities for motors and low-voltage products that work with these materials.

 Although ABB is evaluating and researching uses, it does not currently use wide-bandgap semiconductors in its products.

 ABB knows power electronics technologies, and our Corporate Research Center – also located on the North Carolina State University campus -- has led the way in R&D. This is one of seven global R&D centers ABB has, and we invest more than $1 billion each year in worldwide R&D.

 Our role in the hub

 ABB is receiving $2.1 million of the grant for the federal manufacturing hub project, and we will contribute at least $2.5 million over five years. ABB's main role in the consortium is performance and reliability testing of materials in converter applications.

 ABB, with 150,000 employees, is a global leader in electric power engineering and industrial automation. We employ 700 in Cary and Raleigh, N.C., 2,000 in North Carolina and more than 20,000 in the United States. We employ 30,000 in North America.

 The consortium consists of 18 companies: ABB, APEI, Avogy, Cree, Delphi, Delta Products, DfR Solutions, Gridbridge, Hesse Mechantronics, II-VI, IQE, John Deere, Monolith Semiconductor, RF Micro Devices, Toshiba International, Transphorm, USCi and Vacon.

 The hub is located at N.C. State, and the seven universities and labs taking part are N.C. State University, Arizona State University, Florida State University, University of California at Santa Barbara, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

 This will be an unfolding story, and we will provide periodic updates on our progress. 

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