Clemson, MIT to build $317M project for US textiles overhaul

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Clemson University will take part in a five-year, $317 million project to transform the country’s textile industry into a high-tech business. The plan loops in 72 industry, academic, government and venture capital partners across 28 states to advance the commercialization of ‘smart fabrics’ by US companies for a greater share of the global market.

The project will operate under the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, a non-profit founded by MIT that will connect research to companies, companies to workers, and workers and students to education resources for the country’s technical textiles industry. Clemson University will spearhead the education component by developing virtual reality training and digital learning tools to equip employees for the world of tomorrow.

“We’ll be working on taking a lot of research … and then putting that into training materials for industries, in high schools, for recruitment, for two year programs,” said Kris Frady, the operations director for Clemson’s Center for Workforce Development. “Ultimately as a part to the education and workforce side, we’ll be…converting what they’re doing in research and development and making it trainable and teachable.”

The center will create virtual reality training tools such as factory simulations, which boost engagement for students and combats outdated perceptions of manufacturing as dirty, dangerous and low-tech, she said. The center previously created a training tool that allows students to move through a manufacturing plant from a first-person viewpoint to learn about safety. Another simulation let students take machines apart and put them back together to learn how they work.

Clemson’s share of the $317 million budget is to be determined, said Frady, as are further details about the scope of the education component.

Big names such as DuPont, Intel and Nike are behind the project, as well as local partners at Clemson, Milliken, Inman Mills and the SC Manufacturing Extension Partnership. Funding for the $317 million project will come from the US Department of Defense, industrial partners, venture capitalists and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The project aims to advance the innovation of textiles and fibers across several industries, including defense; consumer products; transportation; manufacturing machinery; apparel; raw materials; consumer electronics; software and databases; medical textiles and scanners; and architectural and interior textiles.

“It turns out there is no company or university in the world that knows how to do all of this,” said MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics Director Professor Yoel Fink in a press release. “Instead of creating a single brick-and-mortar center, we set out to assemble and organize companies and universities that have manufacturing and ‘making’ capabilities into a network — a ‘distributed foundry’ capable of addressing the manufacturing challenges.”

Clemson’s education resources will partially focus on boosting the 620,000-person ‘middle skills’ workforce, expected to make up nearly 50 percent of the new job opportunities in the industry. As many as 30 percent of those workers will need to acquire new skills, according to an analysis by Advanced Functional Fabrics of America.

Newly created jobs will require backgrounds in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), as well as a strong core competencies base that will help workers adapt to new technologies as they come along, said Frady.

“How do we train students for the jobs of the future…that we don’t know exist yet?” said Frady. “If they can develop some learning tools that are centered on those core competencies…we can help the students to be able to transition as technologies emerge.”

The partnership is the eighth Manufacturing Innovation Institute established to date, and the first to be headquartered in New England, according to an MIT news release. The headquarters will be established in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in proximity to the MIT campus and the U.S. Army-funded Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology.

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