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Directors talk collaboration, new challenges

In the changing landscape of the 21st century and the unique grand challenges associated with efficiencies and a move toward more sustainable resources, more is better — more research resources, more diversity in ideas and approaches, more collaboration.

During the final panel of the Renewable Bioproducts Institute’s 2017 executive conference, directors representing five of Georgia Tech’s Interdisciplinary Research Institutes - Robotics, Materials, Manufacturing, Nanotechnology, Renewable Bioproducts - engaged industry representatives in an hour-long discussion on future opportunities in manufacturing and how they can maximize the impact of their work by partnerships with one another and with companies.

RBI is one of 12 IRIs on the Georgia Tech’s campus. Today, these institutes are engaging in more crosscutting research and project development than ever before as industries try to meet new challenges, whether it be automation in the workforce or on the farm or developing more renewable materials to reduce the dependency on petroleum in consumer goods.

The five-person panel, moderated by Christopher Jones, Tech’s associate vice president of research, explored the importance of interdisciplinary partnerships to industry and the benefits that can be gained through a true innovation ecosystem at Georgia Tech.

Oliver Brand, executive director at the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology, said that several global challenges could be addressed through a collaboration of multiple IRIs.

"Take the area of flexible electronics, which provides some of the most promising opportunities in health care applications – wearable electronics. Everyone sitting on this panel is involved in some way," he said. "You need new materials, nano, sustainable substrates, and new materials applications at other institutes like IBB (Petit Institute of Bioengineering and Bioscience). Of course, then we need to manufacture these devices. So, there are skill-sets across the board and across our campus that strengthen our appeal to industry.”

These collaborations are taking place between robotics and manufacturing, renewables and electronics, materials and energy, to name just a few.

“We’re getting a broader point of view, discovery … we need the intersection of all of us here to generate different ideas and approaches,” said Gary McMurray, Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines. “If you look at manufacturing facilities, traditional automation is changing even more. Robots are leaving the cage and working in less strict environments … robots are now making decisions.

“In agriculture, this is a huge area of progress and potential, and another example of where we need flexible products. When I look at this panel, there are skill-sets in each IRI that have an impact with the work we are doing.”

This “innovation ecosystem,” which has become a cornerstone of cross-cutting collaboration and a key focus of Georgia Tech’s Executive Vice President of Research Steve Cross, has resulted in a win-win for both Georgia Tech and its industry partners, according to Jones.

“The original ecosystem began in 2003 with a few investments in Tech Square. Now it’s booming. The number of companies wanting to co-locate here exceeds the space available,” Jones said. “IRIs are central to our approach in targeting investment. They offer a single point of entry into Georgia Tech and this type of concierge service will enable us to grow.”

David McDowell, executive director for the Institute for Materials, said this approach to an innovation ecosystem is an important benefit not only for the IRIs, but also for industry now and in the future.

“Georgia Tech has organized this based on innovation and connectivity,” he said. “Other major research institutes try this approach, but they are limited. We are always thinking together, as a group, about the future so we can anticipate the innovation ecosystem that will exist 20 years from now.”

Keeping up with the rapidly changing scientific and economic landscape requires road-mapping, and this is a critical piece in continuing the relevance and value of the IRIs, according to Jones.

These roadmaps include not only internal stakeholders, but external ones as well, gathering input, anticipating future needs and outlining where an IRI fits into the landscape.

In Robotics, it’s finding what McMurray calls “collaborative robots”–getting the big-picture view by working with industry to bridge the gap in finding ways of programming and modification of technician skills for a portion of the workforce without college degrees. For Materials, it lies in areas such as additive manufacturing and 3D printing, where certification and qualifying present huge opportunities. A new manufacturing scholars program in Manufacturing not only increases the size and quality of the manufacturing talent pipeline for sponsor companies, but also enhances collaboration between GT faculty and manufacturing company sponsors to solve important manufacturing challenges. At RBI, industry partners are sponsoring groundbreaking work in new platforms aimed at using biomass to address energy efficiencies and nanocellulose applications in order to give automotive and aerospace sectors a lighter, stronger building material. And in Electronics and Nanotechnology, promising research is being conducted in sensor-related and flexible electronics, which could revolutionize areas within the health, security and energy sectors.

These types of roadmaps are being formed through a true partnership with industry and an evaluation of their needs.

“IRIs are the touch-point for the interactions with affiliated (companies),” Jones said. “We derive value from long-term relationships ... Our thinking has been catalyzed by the effectiveness of Tech Square, which has resulted in growth far beyond our original vision. We want to replicate that in other areas.”

The Renewable Bioproducts Institute (RBI) builds on nearly a century of lignocellulosics research to transform biomaterials into new products, including traditional and new forest products, renewable energy, chemicals, advanced materials and pharmaceuticals. This research not only enhances the portfolios of industries, from automotive to pulp and paper and aerospace to consumer products, but also seeks to address the global challenges of achieving a more sustainable environment.