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Center for Advanced Manufacturing looks to lead region into the future

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Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the June 25 issue of GSA Business Report.

Mark Johnson is planning the future.

Johnson joined the Clemson University faculty as founding director of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing and the Thomas F. Hash ’69 SmartState Endowed Chair in Sustainable Development.

What that means, he said, is he is sitting with a front-row view to the hottest game in America, and he gets to play sometimes. To him, the playing field is the entire country and, even when he thinks in regional terms, the region is much larger than the Upstate. He sees the most active manufacturing region in the country as one that stretches the entirety of the Interstate 85 corridor — from Virginia to the Gulf. And he likes being in the thick of it.

“There are a lot of elements where a university can play a key role,” he said, citing business connections, technology and ecological systems. “Clemson is at the heart of that and technology innovation is the heart of leadership in that area. So, Clemson plays a key role in making sure that manufacturing has leadership in not only the state but also in the region, nation and the world.”

Johnson wants to play a role in keeping the hot streak going.

“Going forward, how do we keep doing it? If you look at (Interstate) 85 from Virginia to the Gulf, it’s a supply chain that affects so many people. It’s a $1.9 trillion economy, the eighth largest in the world and uses 15% of our energy. And Clemson is in the apex — right in the middle of it.”

By providing technology and the next generation of leaders, higher education has a central role in ensuring the future, Johnson said.

“Manufacturing is booming,” he said. “To ensure it’s still growing in 2020 and 2030 and that it continues to be a foundation for job growth — that’s what attracted me to this.”

The manufacturing sector itself is also on a hot streak, Johnson said. From the depths of the recession, almost a million people have gone to work in manufacturing, the longest period of sustained growth for the industry since the 1970s. Every job in manufacturing creates 0.8 or 0.9 jobs outside the plant. But in advanced manufacturing — where the state has really come on strong in recent years — every job in the factory creates three or four jobs outside, he said.

“So, for 12 million jobs in the U.S. you can have an impact of 50 million jobs,” Johnson said. “It’s a pretty exciting future to look at.”

The Center for Advanced Manufacturing is envisioned as a one-stop shop for research and education programs in advanced manufacturing, according to a university news release. The ultimate goal is economic growth and job creation.

“This is a race,” Johnson said. “Every other state in the union is also going in this direction, and every nation in the world would love to have the land-grant universities that we have in the United States.”

Clemson officials said the Center for Advanced Manufacturing will fuel growth not only in South Carolina but across the nation. They are working closely with industry leaders to develop the center’s programs, which could revolve around a variety of topics from robotics and virtual reality to artificial intelligence and lightweight materials.

Johnson, who has experience as a former government official, entrepreneur and university professor, will act as a conduit that connects manufacturers, faculty, students and other resources, the news release said.

The Center for Advanced Manufacturing is an umbrella organization that brings together several Clemson initiatives that are focused on research and education important to advanced manufacturers. Those initiatives include the Vehicle Assembly Center, the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Center, the Clemson Composites Center, Product Life Cycle Management, the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development and the Center for Aviation and Automotive Technological Education Using Virtual E-Schools.

“We are going to make sure all the resources of Clemson are available to the manufacturing community,” Johnson said.

Johnson is the former director of the Advanced Manufacturing Office in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

In that role, he oversaw a program aimed at making the United States more competitive through support of research and development of new technologies. The program was also focused on building partnerships with the private sector to ensure technologies get out of the lab and into manufacturing.

Prior to that, Johnson was director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, according to the news release. His most recent job prior to joining Clemson was as associate professor of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University.

Johnson is also an entrepreneur and was early-stage leader in Quantum Epitaxial Designs (now International Quantum Epitaxy), EPI Systems (now Veeco) and Nitronex (now GaAs Labs).

Reach Ross Norton at 864-720-1222.

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