UMass Amherst Will Lead Major Federal Initiative in New England to Boost Innovation in Advanced Manufacturing

AMHERST, Mass. – The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) today named the University of Massachusetts Amherst as the lead institution in New England for its national Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a $75 million federal initiative to create a competitive, effective and sustainable research-to-manufacturing collaboration between U.S. industry and academia to solve problems in advanced manufacturing.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts played a major role in the successful proposal, pledging matching funds to support specific projects as they earn federal monies. UMass officials estimate first-year federal funding to be about $5 million, with a total of $40 million to $50 million invested in the project’s New England node from combined federal, state and private sources over five years. UMass Amherst will anchor the regional initiative, joined by academic partners MIT, UMass Lowell, Harvard and Northeastern University and partners in private industry.

“Leveraging Massachusetts’ incredible research universities to produce revolutionary flexible manufacturing breakthroughs will help provide cutting-edge technology for our troops, and a foundation for advanced manufacturing growth in the Commonwealth,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “This partnership showcases the strength of our manufacturing sector, the unique assets at UMass Amherst, and the depth of expertise in our world-class educational institutions. I look forward to working with UMass, MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, and the Department of Defense as we continue to push the limits of technology, and build a platform for economic growth across the Commonwealth.”

“The federal government’s choice of UMass Amherst to lead this cutting-edge research initiative is due in large part to the vision of Governor Charlie Baker and his administration, particularly Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash, the leadership of Senate President Stan Rosenberg and our friends in the state Legislature, and the support of Congressman Jim McGovern and the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation,” said Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. “The flagship campus, through the power of our research, is committed to partnering with the state and with private industry to address the Commonwealth's critical needs. Today’s announcement will lead to breakthroughs in advanced manufacturing that will expand the boundaries of our state’s innovation economy and benefit all of the citizens of Massachusetts.”

UMass President Marty Meehan said, “The selection of UMass Amherst to lead New England’s R&D effort in this emerging field of technology demonstrates the university’s national prominence and its importance as a catalyst for the state’s future economic growth. The Commonwealth, under Governor Baker’s leadership, played a critical role by making a major investment in this partnership, in a period when securing federal research dollars is increasingly competitive. This historic success demonstrates what's possible when our public and private universities, state government and private industry combine their talents and resources in a partnership to help create new economic opportunities for our citizens.”

The new electronics being created take tasks now performed by more expensive, rigid devices based on silicon-based semi-conductor chips found in computers and other devices and over time replaces them with less expensive components including sensors printed on a thin ribbon of plastic in a roll-to-roll manufacturing facility like the one at UMass Amherst.

Thus a skin patch could continuously sense the health of a wearer including monitoring glucose levels or biomarkers for stress, fatigue or disease. Or, another type of sensor could monitor a mechanical component such as a rotor blade or bridge support and communicate its status in real time. Researchers say the range of applications is very broad for high-performance devices on flexible patches, fabrics and films.

UMass Amherst’s contribution will include new processes and materials and a unique roll-to-roll manufacturing research and demonstration facility featuring state-of-the-art technology and new, emerging processes that will enable future generations of printed and hybrid devices. The hybrid devices, which will include both printed and silicon chip-based components, provide a bridge between today’s technology and fully printed devices. A recently released National Research Council report says the global market for flexible electronics will experience a double-digit growth rate, reaching $250 billion by 2025.

“The flexible hybrid electronics grant award to UMass Amherst illustrates that the university is a national leader in research, innovation and technology,” said Senate President Stan Rosenberg. “With this additional funding UMass Amherst will continue developing technologies and products, through public-private partnerships, that will grow advanced manufacturing in Massachusetts, build upon the success of our life sciences industry, and move our economy forward. Congratulations to the university on winning this very competitive grant.”

“With this award, UMass Amherst is once again showing why it is a national leader in the cutting-edge research that will power the 21st century economy,” said Congressman Jim McGovern. “Advanced manufacturing has seen tremendous growth in recent years and Massachusetts is well-positioned to seize this moment. Supporting strong public-private partnerships like this are key to creating the good-paying jobs Massachusetts families need. I am grateful to work side by side with such strong partners at the local, state and federal level to recognize the incredible work of UMass Amherst and other Massachusetts schools and look forward to seeing all that they will accomplish with this exciting opportunity.”

The UMass Amherst efforts will be led by James Watkins, a professor of polymer science and director of the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing (CHM), a comprehensive nanomanufacturing research center funded by a $36 million grant from the National Science Foundation. In this new initiative, UMass will lead the New England Node of DOD’s Flexible Hybrid National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) Institute. The NNMI program was launched after President Barack Obama signed the Revitalize American Manufacturing Act in 2012. The institute’s hub, or headquarters, will be in Silicon Valley, California, home of the Flex Tech Alliance, the nation’s leading flexible electronics industry trade group and UMass Amherst’s partner in bidding for the DOD award.

Watkins says that UMass Amherst is in a particularly strong position to move this manufacturing revitalization initiative forward in Massachusetts and New England. Over the past several years, the CHM has developed new manufacturing processes that enable large area fabrication of nanostructured devices. These capabilities will help improve the performance of printed devices now and in the future. 

The CHM has partnered with Carpe Diem Technologies, a Franklin, Mass.-based company, to build pilot manufacturing tools to scale-up and deploy technologies developed in the laboratory. Projects will also build on the longstanding expertise of the  UMass Amherst polymer science and engineering department to solve critical challenges.

John Berg, CEO of Carpe Diem, noted, “This really leverages the initiatives under way at UMass Amherst, incorporating roll to roll as a manufacturing strategy and the critical equipment Carpe Diem has been building and even newly developing for that purpose. These include roll to roll coating and patterning, nanoimprint lithography and alignment, and even atomic layer deposition. Importantly, this is very difficult to finance in the private sector alone. Manufacturing, especially domestic, has not been sexy to venture capital for quite some time, which is really how leading-edge technology has been financed. The FHE program as well as the life sciences initiative really provide the seed capital that isn’t otherwise available. We see exciting new products and businesses arising out of this program.”

Michael McCreary, chief technology officer for E Ink Corporation based in Billerica, also praised the federal award. "E Ink is pleased to part of this Flextech-led initiative and we look forward to working with the other members of the consortium including the University of Massachusetts and  companies throughout the state of Massachusetts. E Ink has been at the forefront of developing flexible display technology.  We look forward helping to enable the next generation of flexible electronics."

A glimpse of what the FHE effort may bring is provided by a recent collaboration between faculty at UMass Amherst, including Watkins, chemist Vince Rotello, food scientist Sam Nugen, polymer scientist Kenneth Carter, CHM engineer Jeff Morse and the central research labs of General Electric Corp. These partners have been working with the U.S. Air Force to create new, electronic biological and medical nano-sensors printed on flexible materials. One of their first successes is a small, bio-sensing patch expected to be worn by military personnel to report stress and fatigue based on detecting biomarkers in sweat.

Mike Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement at UMass Amherst, said, “The NBMC project is an excellent example of industry partnering with academia to solve a critical need in flexible electronics. The new manufacturing institute is a quick-start program to expand into other areas.” While the first fruits of the new manufacturing stimulus will be produced for the military, he believes there will be “rapid spillover” into many new civilian applications.

UMass Amherst’s success in developing new technologies for printed devices also led to the creation of the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, an investment in Applied Life Sciences from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Collaborative. It includes expansion of the campus’s roll-to-roll manufacturing capabilities as well as the ability to evaluate and test the efficacy of new FHE health monitoring devices in real world settings.

Watkins explains further, “This new FHE institute will pull technology that is ‘just about there’ out of the laboratory faster, so it can be manufactured in a cost-effective way and become a commercial product sooner. It’s going to accelerate the arrival of flexible electronic products in all sorts of areas that we hope will be made in Massachusetts. It will accelerate new applications and new technological devices that exist right now in the lab and push them out faster, so they do not get stuck in the lab.”

He adds, “This is going to help manufacturers finish the processes and products that we are handing off to industry partners. The basic research is either done or there is one critical piece needed to be solved, and then it can be manufactured on a larger scale. There are all kinds of things in that basket,” he notes, such as roll-to-roll-printed flexible nano batteries, antenna and leads, sensors for glucose level, toxins, gases, biomarkers and other molecules.

“We aren’t quite to the stage where we can scan you with a tricorder like the ones they use on ‘Star Trek’ and diagnose your medical condition,” Watkins quips. “But we’re getting there. And this new institute will help companies get there faster.”