Vanderbilt School of Engineering to open cutting-edge research lab in MetroCenter

Experiments will test integrity, reliability of automotive, aeronautical systems

October 17, 2013

Vanderbilt plans to open engineering lab in MetroCenter: The new Vanderbilt University engineering lab will study the reliability of materials used on aircrafts and wind turbines, among other equipment.

When Vanderbilt University last year began the hunt for someone to chair its civil and environmental engineering department, a Purdue University professor who founded a massive laboratory studying the reliability of energy and transportation systems surfaced as a top candidate.

Now, Doug Adams is in Nashville, and he is bringing his lab and four-person research team with him. A new, 20,000-square-foot Laboratory for Systems Integrity and Reliability is scheduled to open in MetroCenter in January, allowing Vanderbilt graduate students to execute experiments on full-scale aircraft, wind turbines and automotives. The lab will work with the U.S. Department of Defense and large manufacturers, including Boeing and General Motors, to help test new and existing products.

The new lab is part of the engineering school’s push in recent years to further distinguish itself as an industry leader, and it is expected to complement the strides made in risk analysis and management research. Adams is one of six new hires in the past year under Dean Philippe Fauchet, who was brought on board in 2012.

Doug Adams was recruited by Vanderbilt from Perdue to create a 20,000-square-foot lab that will study the reliability of materials used on aircrafts and wind turbines, on the Vanderbilt campus. / Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean

“We have the theorists and we are now going to bring the experiments,” Fauchet said. “It’s going to bring our profile up in a very big way.”

The facility will include $10 million in equipment from the Purdue Center for Systems Integrity and will allow Adams to study the reliability of how large equipment responds in different environments, for example, how a wind turbine interacts with other turbines or how a lithium-ion battery performs over time. The goal is to make energy, security and transportation systems as safe and cost-efficient as possible.

“We are able to test assumptions over a much wider range of circumstances so that we don’t have to absorb that risk,” Adams said. “By having the ability to test full-scale systems, we are able to do a much better job of validating our models.”

Adams points to testing the reliability of using composite material instead of aluminum on an aircraft, as an example. The lightweight material can significantly reduce fuel costs for airlines each year, but damages that happen within the material are often more difficult to detect. At his former lab, Adams and his team developed technology to be able to quickly inspect and repair the material, allowing corporate and military partners to reduce maintenance time and costs.

Adams said he was drawn by Fauchet’s vision for the school to focus on energy and security and by the opportunity to work with those who specialize in risk prediction and management and those who design software systems at Vanderbilt’s Institute for Software Integrated Systems.

“There was a lot of excitement here about where everything was moving toward,” Adams said. “You go to some institutions, and they have great researchers but there is not this desire, this shared commitment to move forward and to really push the envelope. That’s what I felt they were doing here, and I thought that was a great opportunity.”

The new facility is similar to Purdue’s, but it will have a higher ceiling and a stronger floor that will allow for more types of equipment. At Purdue, Adams said between 20 and 30 graduate students worked on projects in the lab at a given time and he expects similar involvement at Vanderbilt. He declined to disclose the total cost of the lab but said there is significant cost savings that can be found for multiple industries through such experimentation.

“It’s a huge investment,” he said. “There will be payoff for the School of Engineering at Vanderbilt because it will augment the capabilities and give us new capabilities, and it will also give a return on investments to industry in the region, the department of defense and the military.”