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From 'Gig City' to 'Plugged-In City': What will it take for Chattanooga to lead the EV revolution?

Guest column article written by Mary Beth Hudson and originally posted in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Mary Beth Hudson is Executive Director of the Smart Factory Institute, a business-driven effort guided by the Tennessee Manufacturers Association driving innovation and technology in Tennessee and the southeastern United States. She has over 32 years of experience working in the chemical industry and managing supply chain, production, engineering, EHS, HR, sales, and business services. Before joining the Smart Factory Institute, Mary Beth was Vice President of Wacker Chemical Corp's Polysilicon Division and Site Manager of its Charleston, Tennessee manufacturing operations. She was inducted into the University of Kentucky College of Engineering Hall of Distinction in 2019.

It seems like every other day another headline pops up announcing a new electric vehicle (EV) investment here in Tennessee. In fact, since 2017, the four major OEMs in Tennessee have invested nearly $12 billion in EV projects and have made over 10,000 new job commitments – a strong testament to our outgoing Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe, who years ago set the ambitious goal for Tennessee to become the number one state in the nation for the electric vehicle supply chain.

Chattanooga was ahead of the curve in becoming the first city in the Western Hemisphere to offer gigabit fiber internet service. And so too has our city led the state in early EV investments, such as the 2016 partnership between the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA), TVA, and GreenCommuter, which made us one of the first cities in the nation with an electric vehicle ride-share program.

Since then, EV investment in Chattanooga hasn't slowed down. Of the eight currently operating electric vehicle, component, or battery manufacturers in Tennessee, three are based in Chattanooga.

Most recently, Volkswagen unveiled a new $22 million battery engineering lab to complement their previous $800 million local investment, making Chattanooga the epicenter of the automaker's EV efforts in North America.

It's not just the big OEMs, either. Last year, battery materials maker Novonix announced a $160 million investment in a Chattanooga plant expected to create 300 jobs, prompting Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to testify that "Chattanooga is paving the way for a new electric vehicle supply chain in America."

Around the same time, Sese Industrial Services invested $42 million into a new Chattanooga facility that will employ 240 people to assemble EV axle components. And in 2020, EV auto supplier Gestamp invested nearly $100 million to expand operations at its Hickory Valley Road and Ferdinand Piech Way plants.

With these and other investments, the Chattanooga region is uniquely positioned to become the EV hub of the future. But capital investments alone are not enough to make this vision become reality. We need strong leadership from our regulatory and government institutions, robust partnerships among private industry, academic institutions, and small businesses, and most importantly, a skilled workforce ready and able to fill the thousands of high-tech jobs required to meet new demands of the EV revolution.

That's where the Smart Factory Institute comes in.

This past April, the Chattanooga area-based Smart Factory Institute hosted one of its signature events, the Global EV Battery Innovations Conference. The event featured executives from global EV infrastructure and battery manufacturers, and transportation and energy officials from across the state who came together to deliberate on the EV challenges that lie ahead.

Throughout the day, one theme became clear: For Tennessee and the greater Chattanooga region to maintain its leadership position in the growing EV market, we need to invest in our workforce. Namely, we need to invest in recruiting and training existing and future workforces in Industry 4.0 technologies that are redesigning and revolutionizing manufacturing processes in the automotive sector.

Contrary to popular belief, the need for skilled workers will only increase as we continue to advance technologically. As anyone working in or familiar with Tennessee's automotive industry can attest, even after automating the more dangerous repetitive tasks, employment in this sector rose by nearly 17% over the last two decades.

Moreover, it is estimated that over 4 million manufacturing jobs are needed in the next 10 years, half of which will be unfilled due to lack of a qualified workforce. This is particularly alarming for automakers, who are already facing a growing skills gap.

As the nation's first Deutsche Messe Technology Academy, the vision of the Smart Factory Institute is to help area manufacturers adopt the newest Industry 4.0 technologies to improve productivity and help upskill their workforce to remain competitive. We do this by providing advanced workforce training and facilitating collaboration between technology providers and manufacturers to identify solutions best suited to improve specific production processes. Manufacturers are able to see technology solutions firsthand at the Institute, including advanced robotics, optical inspection, diagnostics and simulation, digitalization, deep learning, and technology supporting EV manufacturing.

The Smart Factory Institute is well-positioned to provide manufacturers throughout the EV supply chain advanced training and optimum technology solutions necessary to successfully integrate the next generation of electric vehicles into the national fleet, and to help Chattanooga lead the EV revolution.


Check out the Smart Factory Insitute's upcoming events here.

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