Nation's first Smart Factory Institute to open in Chattanooga

Photography contributed by Volkswagen Chattanooga / Volkswagen Academy apprentices work in a machining class at the facility on the Volkswagen campus. Volkswagen Academy is a collaboration between Volkswagen and the Engineering and Information Technologies Division at Chattanooga State Community College.

The nation's first Smart Factory Institute is opening in Chattanooga at the Volkswagen Academy where companies will have access to ways to improve manufacturing and advanced technology.

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

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, division manager of the technology academy, said it was only natural to open a location in the United States, which is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world.

"The exchange of key industrial technologies for the optimization of production processes between suppliers and users is one of our core objectives," he said.

Rilke said the growing automotive sector in the Southeast can benefit and the institute can help build a bridge for companies to open up offices or subsidiaries in the region.

Denise Rice, president and chief executive of the workforce training firm Peak Performance Inc., said the Smart Factory Institute will provide leading-edge remote and online training for manufacturing workers.

"We're planning to do hybrid," she said. "It will have in-person events with an option for virtual."

Rice, whose group will handle day-to-day operations of the institute, said the past pandemic year changed the vision quite a bit with the expansion of virtual learning.

"We can reach a broader audience virtually," she said.

Rice said the institutes are proven entities, with locations in Germany and China.

Bradley Jackson, the Tennessee Manufacturers Association's president and CEO, said the institute will help the state be "on the leading edge of driving innovation."

He said that manufacturers in the state indicate that a challenge is to know what kinds of technology and automation is available for them.

"This will house a lot of that," Jackson said.

Jackson said the state Legislature provided a one-time outlay of $400,000 as "seed money" for the institute, which also was in Gov. Bill Lee's budget.

VW Chattanooga is donating the infrastructure at the academy which is located adjacent to the assembly plant.

Tom du Plessis, chief executive of VW's Chattanooga operations, said the academy has the automation and robots which work for the institute.

"The academy does a lot work toward that," he said.

Officials said the institute will help manufacturers ease the transition to new technological advancements in the workplace.

The institute will work closely with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Industrial and Organizational Psychology program to provide experts and best practices, officials said.

The institute's opening date is Oct. 1, or National Manufacturing Day.

Contact Mike Pare at Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.