Tony Schmitz is working to help rebuild America’s manufacturing industry.
A University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute fellow, Schmitz is a professor in UT Knoxville’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering and joint faculty for Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility. He focuses on manufacturing research in support of the U.S. machine tool industry.
Machine tools are any type of tools used to carry out a manufacturing process. They range from robots that assemble products to machines that use a sharp cutting edge to remove material from an item to produce a desired shape.
Schmitz leads the Southeastern Advanced Machine Tool Network (SEAMTN), a consortium of about 40 companies, colleges and universities, national laboratories, non-profit organizations, and the Tennessee state government. The group seeks to strengthen America’s industrial base through machine tool research and development, education, workforce development, and supply chain support.
“I have a very ambitious goal,” Schmitz said. “It is to get enough people engaged in manufacturing and the machine tool industry so that 10 years from now, we no longer have workforce challenges.
“Around the time of World War II, the U.S. led the world in manufacturing,” he said. In the decades since, “the U.S. decided it was going to be a service economy and outsourced manufacturing to other countries. But when you send manufacturing offshore, the innovation and workforce goes with it.”
The Department of Defense needs America to be capable of manufacturing the materials needed to maintain its own national security. To help make that happen, the DoD has awarded SEAMTN $5 million in funding.
Schmitz said SEAMTN makes it possible for members to share information, participate in webinars and other educational efforts, attend technology demonstrations, and be engaged with research underway at UT.
Schmitz is also one of UT-ORII’s first seed grant recipients. He received $100,000 to support three graduate students to work with himself and three other UT faculty members in a project that employs machine learning (artificial intelligence) to manufacturing process inputs to outputs and adjust processes to increase productivity and ensure quality. The team’s goal is to develop techniques that can be adopted by industry.
In addition, Schmitz is part of UT-ORII’s SMaRT (Student Mentoring and Research Training) internship program, which enrolled its first group of undergraduates from across the U.S. last summer.
Schmitz mentored three of the students—one from Virginia Tech, one from the University of Minnesota, and one from Harvard. They worked on an additive manufacturing project, printing samples and testing various surface treatments to increase strength and stiffness.
While the mentoring program gives students the opportunity to engage in research, it’s also a recruiting tool for UT and ORNL.
In machine tool manufacturing, like so many other areas, there is tremendous opportunity right here in east Tennessee, under the UT-ORII umbrella.
“On both sides, UT and ORNL, if we take full advantage of the partnership—we have so many smart people in a 30-mile radius—we will be national leaders.”
Schmitz, who grew up in Kansas, said he got interested in manufacturing by watching his dad, who worked at the Boeing plant in Wichita. In college, he majored in mechanical engineering. In grad school, he got interested in machine tools.
“I continue to find ways to satisfy my curiosity by modeling manufacturing operations,” he said.
And he loves teaching.
“It scratches my itch to be an entertainer,” he said, adding that at 18, he dreamed of being the front man for a rock band. “Teaching is as close as I’m going to get to that.”