A boost for the region

Jan. 16, 2014 @ 10:37 AM

President Barack Obama’s visit to Raleigh and the Research Triangle Park Wednesday brought a boost for the region and another illustration of the cutting-edge nature of work at our universities and businesses.

At Vacon’s research and development site in the Durham portion of RTP, Obama got a glimpse of the Finland-based company’s work on AC drives which control the speed of electric motors to maximize energy efficiency.

“That means ultimately, energy savings that we can spread across the entire economy,” Obama said at the plant. “This makes our energy smarter, more efficient.”

Obama visited the Vacon site en route to a speech at N. C. State University where he delivered the major announcement of this trip. The first of three hubs that will partner universities and companies to invent, design and make new products will be based at NCSU. Vacon, Durham-based Cree and 16 other companies will be the business partners. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will be among five other universities in the consortium.

The two other hubs are still in the selection process.

Each will be “designed to bridge the gap between applied research and product development, bringing together companies, universities and other academic and training institutions, and federal agencies to co-invest in technology areas that encourage investment and production in the U.S.,” a White House press release said. “This type of ‘teaching factory’ provides a unique opportunity for education and training of students and workers at all levels, while providing the shared assets to help companies, most importantly small manufacturers, access the cutting-edge capabilities and equipment to design, test, and pilot new products and manufacturing processes.”

The N.C. State-based consortium will do research on and hope to push to the manufacturing stage new semiconductor chips and devices for industrial and consumer devices. It will receive $70 million over five years from the U. S. Energy Department and at least that much from the universities, businesses and the state.

The endorsement of the brain power available in this region -- at universities and in businesses -- is reason enough to hail the location of the first “innovation institute” here in the Triangle.

But on another important level, the administration believes that its initiative --  admittedly, a partly partisan play that will be featured later this month in the president’s State of the Union message -- will create well-paying manufacturing jobs. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-NC, predicted the project will create or sustain 1,000 jobs in its first five years.

In a state where the long decline of traditional textile, tobacco and furniture industries and the crowning blow of the Great Recession  have decimated manufacturing jobs, those jobs would be welcome.

Wednesday’s announcement was yet another manifestation of the wisdom the state’s and the region’s business and political leaders showed more than a half-century ago when they placed a big bet on turning hundreds of acres of scrub pine into a sprawling research park that would, foreshadowing the goals of the innovation centers, yoke world-class research universities and private-sector businesses to lead innovation.