The Germans Are Coming

UT Volkswagen announcement

The Germans Are Coming

A collaboration between UT and Volkswagen could help cement Knoxville’s status as a hub for research and innovation.

by jesse fox mayshark • January 20, 2020


Oliver Schauerte, volkswagen's research head of materials and manufacturing processes, at the announcement of the company's new innovation hub on friday. (photo courtesy of the university of tennessee)

When William Henken came to the University of Tennessee for graduate work in civil engineering, he didn’t know he would end up building the cars of the future.

A partnership that could grow from a six-person lab into a major investment.

But as one of three UT doctoral students drafted into a new collaboration with the German automaker Volkswagen, Henken will be working to develop composite materials that could ultimately be used in vehicles worldwide.

On Friday, UT announced the creation of a Volkswagen Innovation Hub at the university’s Research Park at Cherokee Farm on Alcoa Highway. It is one of two such research centers in the United States, and one of a half-dozen created globally by the world’s leading car manufacturer.

“The work that I’m doing will have implications across all different types of industries,” Henken said after a kickoff event Friday afternoon. “I feel humbled to be a part of this.”

The announcement brought together UT administrators with Volkswagen executives and federal, state and local officials at the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAM), the anchor building for the still mostly undeveloped research park.

Although the initial footprint of the Volkswagen collaboration is small — just a half-dozen researchers — it has the potential to grow substantially. It is based in the Innovation North building at Cherokee Farm.

“In 1998, Volkswagen started a similar hub in Palo Alto, California,” Interim UT President Randy Boyd said in an interview after the announcement. “Today they have over 200 scientists and researchers (there). We’re hopeful that we can do better.”

The announcement is the kind of payoff UT has long envisioned from its collaborative work with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the establishment in 2015 of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI).

It brings together ORNL’s pioneering work in developing strong, lightweight composites with industry investment and university research.

Volkswagen hopes that the Innovation Hub will produce alternatives to traditional steel and plastics that can make its cars lighter, safer and more efficient — whether those are high-end Porsches or Golf hatchbacks. The center will also work on electric vehicle technology.

“We are a group center of innovation,” said Oliver Schauerte, Volkswagen’s research head of materials and manufacturing processes. “The work we are doing is always available for all brands within the Volkswagen group. We always check if the inventions or the developments can be used somewhere in the world. Or, the best case, all over the world.”

Putting It Together

Sharing the stage at Friday’s announcement with the assorted speakers — who besides Boyd and Schauerte included UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman and U.S. Reps. Tim Burchett and Chuck Fleischmann — was a bright orange rear liftgate created for Volkswagen through a pilot project at IACMI. 

The prototype panel is 35 percent lighter than a comparable steel door and has fewer parts.

“Here at UT, we have researchers that are the best in the world at developing advanced materials and additive manufacturing,” Plowman said during the kickoff event. “Their research, their skill and their expertise includes composites that will make automotive components both stronger and lighter — and orange,” she added, to laughter.

IACMI was established by former President Barack Obama as one of eight regional institutes to bring together university research with private industry. The team of graduate and undergraduate students that developed the material used in the demonstration liftgate was led by Uday Vaidya, the governor’s chair in advanced composites manufacturing at UT Knoxville.

Henken, a Florida native who just finished his master’s program at UT, was recruited for the Innovation Hub program by his adviser, Dayakar Penumadu, UT’s JIAM chair of excellence, who will oversee the work along with Vaidya.

“I wouldn’t be here without IACMI,” said Henken, who had a workplace development internship with the institute in 2016. He said the opportunity to work on cutting-edge science for a world-leading company is the kind of thing that will make UT attractive to top graduate students across the country.

“We’re really setting the stage for a long-lasting partnership between the University of Tennessee and Volkswagen,” Henken said. “If I were a student coming through the pipeline, I would see that as a very large motivator to go to the University of Tennessee.”

The VW Connection

Of course, Volkswagen is no stranger to Tennessee. Several speakers on Friday referenced the company’s manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, which opened in 2011 and currently employs about 3,800 people. 

Boyd noted that while he was serving as commissioner of economic and community development for former Gov. Bill Haslam in 2015, Volkswagen announced that it would be building its midsize Atlas SUV there.

“I made a $5,000 deposit and got the very first Volkswagen Atlas that came off the line,” Boyd said. (He is also the proud owner of a 1976 Volkswagen Beetle, which he drove to Friday’s event.)

He wasn’t the only one to invoke a personal history with the brand. In his remarks, Burchett — a car and motorcycle enthusiast — said, “My very first car was a 1969 Karmann Ghia convertible, which I still have.”

Volkswagen executives evinced similarly fond feelings toward Tennessee, which provided substantial state incentives for the Chattanooga plant. (State advocacy has even extended to Gov. Bill Lee visiting last year to encourage workers not to unionize. The union effort was voted down the next month.)

Schauerte said Volkswagen had looked all over the continent for a place to locate a materials research hub.

“We decided to make several independent surveys to find out where the hotspots in the United States and North America for materials research (were),” he said. “Out of the top five, we always found a town called Knoxville.”

The company’s record of experience in Tennessee helped, Schuarte said. “Tennessee always stood at the side of Volkswagen when it was in the dark times of the last years,” he said, referring to the “Dieselgate” scandal in which the company was found to have falsified emissions data in about 11 million vehicles.

Schuarte emphasized the mutual value of partnering with a university.

“The students are the central part of the project,” he said, noting that while they are engaged in the project they will be treated as Volkswagen employees. “If a Ph.D student joins our program, he’s paid and we take over all the (university) fees that are necessary. He’s part of the Volkswagen group, so he has a Volkswagen badge and he’s benefiting from the Volkswagen benefits that we are providing.”

For the first three students in the program, work has already begun. Henken said his first day on the job was Jan. 6.