New CU-ICAR executive director aims to strengthen industry relationships, workforce development initiatives

Nick Rigas, executive director of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research. Photo by Will Crooks.

Clemson University has appointed Nick Rigas as executive director of its International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) in Greenville.

Rigas replaces Fred Cartwright, who headed CU-ICAR for six years. Cartwright resigned last year to take over as president of Prūv Mobility Ecosystem, an Indiana-based company developing smart infrastructure test beds for connected, autonomous, and advanced propulsion technologies.

“I’m really excited for the opportunity to lead CU-ICAR into the future,” said Rigas, who was also recently appointed associate vice president for Strategic Initiatives at Clemson. “To work with Clemson on the larger initiatives again, it’s really invigorating.”

Rigas brings decades of experience in the energy industry to CU-ICAR.

After graduating with a doctorate in chemical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis in 1991, Rigas was named director of manufacturing and technology at Charlotte, N.C.-based FMC Corp., where he led the expansion of the company’s lithium manufacturing capabilities in India, Argentina, and China.

He was then hired to serve as vice president of Chicago-based EcoEnergy, where he was responsible for the development of more than 3,000 megawatts of wind-power projects throughout the country.

More recently, Rigas served as executive director of the Clemson University Restoration Institute (CURI) in North Charleston and oversaw the construction of the $98 million SCE&G Energy Innovation Center.

The center, which was funded by a $45 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and $53 million in private and state contributions, houses the world’s most advanced wind-turbine drivetrain testing facility capable of full-scale highly accelerated mechanical and electrical testing of advanced drivetrain systems for wind turbines.

Rigas also served as principal investigator on a $10 million grant from the Department of Energy to build a grid simulator at CURI. The 15-megawatt hardware-in-the-loop grid simulator can simulate the electrical grid of any country in the world, according to a news release.

“Nick has already done wonderful things for Clemson with the vision and realization of the Energy Innovation Center and Zucker Family Graduate Education Center in Charleston,” said Angie Leidinger, vice president of external affairs at Clemson University. “By utilizing his ability to bring together the great minds within the university as well as strategic corporate and international partners, I fully expect he will be able to take CU-ICAR along the same path as the automotive world enters one of the most consequential transitions in history.”

Rigas said his vision for CU-ICAR is not just to oversee the daily operations but also to work closely with industry. He also plans to leverage resources in the automotive engineering department and the college of engineering, computing, and applied sciences to grow the research and education programs.

“Let’s be honest, when industry engages with us, their primary concern is what can we do for their workforce,” Rigas said. “By keeping that in mind, it helps shape what we do both on the educational and research side here at CU-ICAR. If we’re going to be developing the engineers of the future, we want to make sure they’re properly prepared to meet those needs.”

Opened in 2007, CU-ICAR is a 250-acre advanced-technology research campus that offers one of the only automotive engineering graduate programs in the nation. The two-year program has so far graduated more than 180 master’s and Ph.D. students.

CU-ICAR is currently supported by more than a dozen industry partners (BMW, Michelin, etc.) that provide machinery, equipment, student fellowships, and internships. Research at the center is focused on seven automotive areas, including advanced powertrains, vehicular electronics, manufacturing and materials, vehicle-to-vehicle infrastructure, vehicle performance, human factors, and systems integration.

Rigas said automotive research will remain a point of emphasis for CU-ICAR but that he plans to explore partnerships with other industries in the coming years.

“The ‘A’ in ‘ICAR’ will always stand for ‘automotive,’” he said. “But many of the core technologies that have been developed in the automotive space are also applicable to the energy, aerospace, and appliance industries. They share a lot of the same challenges.”

He added that additional partnerships could also help manufacturers across the state combat the ongoing skills gap by exposing students to other industries and careers. Ninety-five percent of CU-ICAR graduates are employed in the automotive industry. About a quarter are employed in South Carolina.

More than 1,800 manufacturers, including about 460 foreign companies, currently call the Upstate home, according to Upstate SC Alliance, a regional economic development organization. Manufacturing accounts for $13.3 billion, about 22 percent, of the region’s nearly $60 billion gross regional product.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the industry supports 107,837 jobs regionally, which comprises 21 percent of the Upstate’s workforce not including state and federal government jobs. But the skills gap is widening, and over the next decade, 2 million of the projected 3.4 million manufacturing jobs expected to come online will be unfilled, according to the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Rigas said CU-ICAR would also put a larger emphasis on workforce development in the coming years to help students and industry partners learn and develop advanced manufacturing techniques and technologies, especially robotics.

“He’s ramping up quickly,” said Zoran Filipi, chairman of the automotive engineering department and executive director of the Carroll A. Campbell Graduate Engineering Center at CU-ICAR. “In particular, Nick embraced the vision for the new umbrella organization in manufacturing, the Center for Advanced Manufacturing, and is on the forefront of discussions regarding plans for the expansion of the Greenville campus.”


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