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In response to the growing importance of auto manufacturing in the state of Tennessee, UT’s College of Engineering announced that it is developing a graduate-level automotive engineering concentration that will begin in fall 2016.

“This is a significant step for both our university and for our college,” said College of Engineering Dean Wayne Davis. “This presents an opportunity for us to take even more of a role in preparing students for the ever-changing workforce and to solidify our place in the economic development of the state.”

This map, made available by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, shows the location of industries and businesses in the state devoted to auto manufacturing or supply. The industry is present in 80 of the 95 counties in the state.
This map, made available by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, shows the location of industries and businesses in the state devoted to auto manufacturing or supply. The industry is present in 80 of the 95 counties in the state.

While many of the classes—at both the master’s and doctoral level—will be housed in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science also plan to begin automotive-focused graduate-level concentrations.

Additionally, significant coursework supporting these concentrations will come from the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, among others, spreading the impact of the new offerings across the college.

“Clearly, this is not only a move to have our engineers be prepared for the workforce after graduation, but also a response to the major role that the automotive industry is playing in our state,” said Matthew Mench, head of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering. “As Tennessee’s flagship university, part of our mission is to help the state succeed.

“By serving both our students and industries with this concentration, we can better fulfill that mission.”

There are plans to include classes in the Haslam College of Business in the concentration, while UT Chattanooga is also in talks to be part of the program.

The importance of the automotive industry is highlighted by a study conducted by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC, think tank that analyzed the climate of automobile production in Tennessee in 2013.

That study finds that the state’s share of North American motor vehicle-related manufacturing employment, which held firm through the Great Recession, is almost equal to the rest of the South combined, and is actually now well ahead of the Midwest, Canada, and other areas of the United States.

In fact, with more than 900 automotive-related manufacturers, Tennessee trails only Mexico in North America.

The recent expansion of Alcoa’s Blount County facilities to include a $300 million automotive-related production facility highlights the importance of the industry to the state and the need for knowledge within that industry.

The Brookings report, titled “Drive! Moving Tennessee’s Automotive Sector Up the Value Chain” highlights some aspects of the auto industry in the state:

  • Statewide, 82,000 jobs are in some way related to automobile manufacturing.
  • Eighty of the state’s ninety-five counties have at least one automotive-related manufacturer.
  • Work being done on fuel efficiency and design within the state bodes well for future industry growth.

“As a state, we are well positioned as a leader in automotive manufacturing, and we have a number of alumni already working in this area across the state and surrounding areas. As a university, we must ensure that we stay relevant to industry within the state,” said Davis.

The report specifically mentions “lightweight materials (particularly carbon fiber)” as a key to future production, playing directly into one of the strengths of the university and the college—advanced manufacturing.

A sign of that strength came when the university, along with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was chosen to serve as a lead institution on the Composites Institute (previously known as the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, or IACMI), a $259 million research institute spread across thirty-seven states, with a specific focus on reducing the cost of fiber composites. Faculty and researchers from both institutions, along with a host of other partner universities and companies, began that effort in June.

“This directed effort to grow automotive engineering at UT is so timely and critical,” said Taylor Eighmy, vice chancellor for research and engagement. “I look to our growing research and development relationships with Volkswagen, Nissan, General Motors, Ford, and the automotive supply chain, I look to our new Composites Institute, and I see the focus on innovative automotive research and development at ORNL and this new concentration just makes perfect sense.”

By the numbers: automotive industry in Tennessee:

1—The state’s ranking in automotive manufacturing strength and for the number of certified sites, by Business Facilities magazine and Area Development magazine, respectively

3—The number of automotive original equipment manufacturers located in Tennessee:

  • General Motors–Spring Hill (Spring Hill)
  • Nissan North America (Smyrna and Decherd)
  • Volkswagen Group of America (Chattanooga)

76—The percentage of US markets located within a day’s drive of the state

85—The percentage of the state’s counties with auto-related manufacturing

1,000—The number of automotive suppliers in the state

100,000—Tennesseans employed in auto manufacturing jobs

6 billion—The annual payroll, in dollars, of Tennessee’s auto industry


David Goddard (865-974-0683,