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Country's first Smart Factory Institute opens in Chattanooga

Original article written by Mike Pare and posted in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reposted with permission from author. Contact Mike Pare at Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

Calling it "a milestone event" for Chattanooga, officials on Friday opened the nation's first Smart Factory Institute which they said will serve as a model for advanced manufacturing countrywide.

"It will allow those in manufacturing to institute new and effective training methods," said Mary Beth Hudson, executive director of the institute that is based at the Volkswagen Academy.

Gov. Bill Lee said the institute, a public-private partnership, will provide tangible workforce skills and training.

"Manufacturing is a key driver in Tennessee's economy," he said in a video on National Manufacturing Day.

With $400,000 in state funds and help from the private sector, the institute will provide manufacturers with connections, collaborative relationships and certifications for bettering processes, officials said.

The institute is a part of a network of international academies operated by the Deutsche Messe Technology Academy in Hanover, Germany, a joint project between Deutsche Messe and the Volkswagen Group Academy.

Thomas Rilke, chief executive of the technology academy, said the institute will promote knowledge transfer in the region.

He said the initiative will, for example, set up conferences in Chattanooga on topics involving industrial production.

All photos: Courtesy of Times Free Press Staff, Matt Hamilton

Rilke cited the efforts of workforce training firm Peak Performance Inc. and VW in helping the institute come about.

Tom du Plessis, chief executive of VW's Chattanooga operations, said the institute opens up opportunities for manufacturing. He noted that the VW plant is transitioning to building electric vehicles with production to begin on an SUV next year.

"With a new era of change, new skill sets are required," du Plessis said, mentioning robots working side by side, or co-bots, and self-driving trucks.

The plant CEO said workers will benefit from training and certifications.

Bradley Jackson, chief executive of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Tennessee Manufacturers Association, cited the past week where Ford announced it's making a multimillion-dollar investment in West Tennessee and bringing thousands of jobs to produce EVs. Also, firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson is relocating its headquarters and much of its manufacturing to East Tennessee.

"This event is really about our future," Jackson said, adding the institute will help small- to medium-sized businesses as well.

Jeff McCord, commissioner of the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said manufacturing is essential to the lives and livelihoods of many Tennesseans.

"Manufacturing is changing, will change and continue to change," he said.

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.


The Smart Factory Institute will be hosting its first event on October 21st, the 7th Annual Peak Performance Symposium, for manufacturers, by manufacturers. The event will take place at the WACKER Institute on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College from 10:00am - 3:00pm.

This year's event, themed, 'Maintaining Competitive Manufacturing Operations: Using Innovative Technology to Build a Skilled Workforce and Create Resilient, Networked Supply Chains', brings in an exciting line-up of industry professionals from U.S. Express, WACKER, DENSO, Volkswagen Chattanooga, UTC, Chattanooga State, and Chattanooga Endeavors, speaking on topics related to supply chain, smart workers, creating technology roadmaps, and how COVID-19 is affecting recruitment and employee retention. Also joining the line-up as the Keynote, is former Chattanooga Mayoral candidate, Wade Hinton, kicking off the event, speaking on how diversity, equity, and inclusion being a part of the solution to fill the skilled labor shortage that manufacturing and general business industry is currently facing.



Registration & Networking


Welcome: How COVID is Changing Business & Industry

by Denise Rice, President & CEO, Peak Performance


Keynote: Advancing Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion in Business

by Wade Hinton, Attorney, Executive, & Inclusion Leader

America is facing a skilled labor shortage in not only manufacturing but in the general business industry as well. Hear Wade speak on how diversity, equity, and inclusion can be part of the solution to fill this labor gap.

11:15am - Break


Session 1: Creative Solutions to Supply Chain Challenges

by Eric Fuller, President & CEO, U.S. Express

The ongoing pandemic has highlighted structural problems in global supply chains. Hear Eric discuss how U.S. Express is embracing digital capabilities that will protect supply chains and create resilience against future disruptions.

12:00pm - Break


Lunch & Panel Discussion:

How COVID Has Impacted Employee Recruitment & Retention

Dr. Chris Cunningham, UC Professor of Psychology, UTC

Ardena Garth Hicks, President, Chattanooga Endeavors

Burkhard Ulrich, Senior VP of Human Resources, Volkswagen Chattanooga

The pandemic has shifted a major sector of the workforce in ways we did not anticipate. Hear from HR experts on how COVID is impacting employee safety & health and the impact it is having on employee retention.

1:00pm - Break


Session2: The Smart Worker for the Smart Factory

by Theresa Cassem, Senior HR Manager, WACKER Chemical Corporation &

Tre Powell, Dean, Chattanooga State Community College

Technology and automation are driving change in the skills needed for manufacturing operators, underscoring that people are at the core of technology adoption. WACKER and Chattanooga State share their insights on developing technical skills of incumbent workers to fill these imperative roles.

1:45pm - Break


Session 3: Developing Your Technology Roadmap

by Chris Owen, Head of Analytics, R&D, Standards & Compliance, and Cyber-Security, DENSO

Industry 4.0 is sure to have an impact on manufacturing processes, but where and how do you start? Hear how to design a technology roadmap that is achievable and sustainable with a high degree of confidence of implementation success.

2:30pm - Break


Tour of the WACKER Institute

by Tre Powell, Dean, Chattanooga State Community College

3:00pm - Adjourn

Manufacturer (In-Person Attendance) | $75

Manufacturer Group of Six (6) | $300

Non-Manufacturer (In-Person Attendance | $125

Virtual (Online Attendance) | $25

Event is limited to 50 in-person tickets. When all 50 tickets are sold, all others will have to attend virtually.

If you are a member of any of the following associations, reach out to us for discount ticket codes:

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