Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Reputation Built on Innovation

Kentucky's growing advanced manufacturing sector takes many forms at companies from big automakers Ford and Toyota to GE to Alltech Algae, Mazak Corp. and NuForm Materials. The Commonwealth has jumped in with workforce education and incentive programs to meet employers' needs.

Pamela Coyle
On Wednesday, April 17, 2013 - 10:07
An algae production facility in Winchester and a coal ash recycling plant in Sadieville join big names such as GE, Toyota and Ford in a growing advanced manufacturing sector in Kentucky. To better meet the needs of advanced manufacturing employers, the state and the administration of Gov. Steve Beshear have aligned both economic and educational resources including revamped incentives and a coordinated approach to career and technical education. Workforce training is a big focus, and building new facilities to maintain a steady pipeline of qualified employees is on the table with government, academia and industry working together. “Compared to 30 years ago, though, what we are finding is that manufacturing employees need a more applied knowledge base. We have to have people who have ‘soft skills’ and can take the knowledge, be innovative and work in teams,” says Ken Carroll, vice president of business development at the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers. GE, Ford, Toyota Lead the Way Manufacturing is not an afterthought in Kentucky. A key economic sector, manufacturing accounts for $27 billion, or 17 percent, of Kentucky’s Gross Domestic Product and employs more than 215,000 people. Nor is it idle. Production as 2012 closed was nearly at pre-recession levels, and more than half of the companies that responded to the Kentucky Association of Manufacturer’s annual survey plan to hire between one and 19 people in 2013, Carroll says. At operations of all sizes, jobs in advanced manufacturing will lead the way. GE makes highly energy efficient water heaters in Louisville. Ford has invested more than $1.2 billion to upgrade its Kentucky plant to state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities. Toyota is incorporating advanced manufacturing techniques to create more fuel-efficient vehicles. The proximity of Tier 1 automakers also laid the foundation for the Kentucky-Argonne Battery Manufacturing Research and Development Center, a $20.7 million facility administered by the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research that aims to make Kentucky and the U.S. industry world players in the lithium-ion battery market. Advanced Manufacturing Takes Many Forms Mazak Corp., which makes machining centers, turning centers and multitasking machines that other manufacturers use to fashion precision metal components, is another Kentucky success story. Mazak employs about 500 people at its Florence facility and is adding another 100,000 square feet in 2013 – bringing its footprint to 800,000 square feet. Mazak’s machines make components for oil and gas drilling rigs, aerospace engines and landing gear, bearings for MRI machines and medical devices, and a host of other end products. Precision metal cutting, close tolerances and fine finishes are the common denominators, President Brian Papke says. “Our customers need to be more energy efficient and more productive than ever before,” Papke says. “We’ve made the transformation into being quite a high-tech company.” In 2010 sales increased 110 percent over the prior year; in 2011, they jumped another 60 percent year-over-year. Mazak is the only supplier of certain machines in the world. One of the world’s largest algae production facilities is in Winchester, at Alltech Algae. Algae are used in food, animal feed, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, biofuels, carbon sequestration, and bioremediation of waste and waste water. The staff has grown from eight to more than 55 since Alltech bought the facility in 2010. Alltech Algae uses its traditional fermentation technologies plus state-of-art automation and analytical instrumentation, says Kevin Perraut, Alltech’s North American operations manager. “Algae production starts with a single ounce of specific algae that rapidly matures and progresses to an eight-story tall production fermentation tank in a few days,” Perraut says. “These tanks are fully automated and can be monitored and managed from a central control room.” From LEAN to Green to Sustainable Kentucky is taking the lead, too, in sustainable manufacturing, which views advanced manufacturing as part of a closed-loop system that adds three additional “R’s” to reduce, reuse and recycle – recover, redesign and remanufacture. UK’s Center for Manufacturing has evolved into the UK Institute for Sustainable Manufacturing, which is home to two international journals, multidisciplinary research and industry partnerships. Projects include working with GE on turbine blade improvements, Toyota on sustainable crankshaft manufacturing and Nextmark on remanufacturing copier toner, says I.S. Jawahir, a professor of mechanical engineering and the institute’s director. The goal is sustainable growth with next-generation products that reduce energy and waste, he says. NuForm Materials in Sadieville is such an operation. It uses discarded coal combustion ash to make composite ceramics for the auto and aerospace industries that are lighter, stronger and more cost effective than competing materials on the market.