The R&D Multiplier

ABOVE Scientists at Evonik’s new Research & Development Center in Birmingham work to develop screws and plates used to fix bone fractures from bioresorbable polymers that biodegrade into carbon dioxide and water, eliminating the need for second surgeries.

It’s great when companies locate production facilities in Alabama, but it’s extra cool when those facilities include a research and development (R&D) center. Slowly but surely, Alabama is seeing more of that.

A short list of more recent examples includes an R&D center at Evonik Corp.’s campus in Birmingham, where more than 20 researchers are working to develop medical implant devices and materials that mend broken bodies. Extensive R&D work will be part of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Advanced Manufacturing Facility in Huntsville, which will develop and build spaceship rocket engines. And a recently opened innovation center at the New Flyer complex in Anniston is helping drive the future of transportation.

Those businesses already had operations in Alabama when they chose to add research and development functions to them. Given their tangible and intangible value, state officials have made it a priority to recruit for R&D centers, or innovation centers.

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“R&D centers provide many benefits on a wide scale, ” says Angela Till, deputy secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “These types of jobs — in fields including research, engineering and product design and development — tend to pay salaries that are considerably above the state average. The average annual salary for an aerospace engineer in Alabama is more than $115, 000, so these types of jobs draw many talented individuals to the state.

“In addition, the presence of an R&D center can serve as an anchor to solidify the presence of a company’s manufacturing facility in the state, ” Till says. “Another benefit is that these facilities bolster the reputation of the state as a center for innovation and new technology development. They also tend to spur the creation of other innovation-focused ventures in an area, making local economies more dynamic, prosperous and diverse.”

ABOVE New Flyer Industries in Anniston has opened a Vehicle Innovation Center at the bus-building site. Visitors are encouraged, with the opportunity to see new developments as well as buses in progress.

For Germany-based Evonik, the company’s existing Birmingham campus was a logical choice for a new R&D center, which was begun in 2014. The Birmingham operation’s expertise is polymer manufacturing and synthesis, particularly biodegradable polymers. That dovetailed with medical devices research the company wanted to do in the United States, says Andreas Karau, who heads the biomaterials business for Evonik.

“In this case, that means biocompatible and bioresorbable polymers used to create devices, such as screws, plates, wires and scaffolds, to repair broken bones, torn tendons and damaged intervertebral discs, ” Karau says.

“What’s driving that research are facts like more than one in three women and one in five men over the age of 50 will develop osteoporosis at some point. The number of implants required for the fixation of bone fractures is substantial. Osteoporosis, for example, is responsible for 8.9 million fractures every year.

“Typically, severe bone breaks or fractures are repaired with metal screws or plates that need to be surgically removed once they have completed their tasks and the bones have mended, ” says Karau. “Devices designed with our bioresorbable polymers biodegrade into carbon dioxide and water within the body after they have served their purpose and do not require a second surgery for removal. We also work on solutions that allow the inclusion of a drug in the implantable device to, for example, accelerate healing.”

A world leader in specialty chemicals, Evonik has roughly 33, 500 employees, and 2016 sales were approximately $15 billion. The company had about 100 employees in Birmingham when it announced plans four years ago for the new R&D center, its first in North America.

Karau says that more than 20 experts from a wide range of fields have been recruited to Evonik’s R&D program in Birmingham. “Chemists, polymer scientists, engineers and experts in 3D printing are all under one roof trying to develop next generation solutions using bio-functional materials, ” he says. “These experts can tap into the many competencies of our global organization.”

ABOVE Rendering of new Aerojet plant that’s now under construction in Huntsville. It will build AR1 rocket motors and engine components and perform supporting research.

Like Evonik, California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne’s R&D and products border on science fiction but in a different orbit. R&D will play a significant role at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Advanced Manufacturing Facility under construction in Huntsville, which will support U.S. space and defense programs by producing AR1 rocket motor and engine components.

The AR1 is replacing Russian engines used on Atlas V rockets, which are assembled in Decatur by United Launch Alliance. The AR1 also is being advanced for use in NASA’s deep space exploration, which includes plans for a manned flight to Mars.

The new facility is part of a consolidation of three Aerojet Rocketdyne locations across the country and will employ 800 workers, many of whom will be in R&D. The company’s defense-related program management, engineering and related support positions are being moved to the new Huntsville facility, which is scheduled for completion in 2018 and production in 2019.

Part of the $35 million facility’s equipment to manufacture new rocket motor and engine components will include a development filament winding facility and a large concentration of additive manufacturing (3-D printing) machines, says Lynn Machon, director of communications for Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Down the road from Huntsville in Anniston, New Flyer, the largest transit bus and motor coach manufacturer in North America, recently opened its Vehicle Innovation Center as part of a $25 million expansion there. The expansion adds fabrication equipment that enhances component manufacturing, streamlines the weld process and expands the operational footprint.

Much like the auto industry, New Flyer’s research focuses on electric propulsion, autonomous driving and vehicle telematics. In addition to fostering research conducted in Anniston, the innovation center will be used to showcase the company’s progress and capabilities, especially with emissions-free transit buses.

“We’ve invested heavily in Anniston, ” says Chris Stoddart, New Flyer’s senior vice president of engineering and customer services. “We have a lot of capacity there, we had the real estate to do this expansion, and working with the folks in the state of Alabama and Anniston, we had a lot of support for that initiative.

“Part of our initial plan as we deploy zero-emission vehicles is to have our Anniston facility as the launch facility, ” Stoddard says.  “For a period of time it will build all our zero-emission vehicles, but as demand increases, we’ll need to migrate that to all our other facilities. But the intent is to have Anniston as the showplace for launching the emissions-free technology.”

A major part of that showplace is the Vehicle Innovation Center, which will get major use for customer tours to the latest in technological developments and how emissions-free buses can work into transit systems in different conditions and environments.

Stoddart says that driverless vehicles are coming, but he thinks they will not be seen in significant numbers for another generation or so. But given the progress with telematics and other technologies, these are especially exciting times for Stoddart, a 28-year transportation industry veteran.

“I’m not trying to be cliché here, ” he says, “but I truly feel this is an exciting time and feel like we’re going to see more innovations in the transportation business in the next 10 to 20 years than we’ve probably seen in the past 50 years.”

Charlie Ingram is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Birmingham.


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