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Meet the women behind Clemson’s one-of-a-kind vehicle prototype program

March 8th, 2021

Women influence more than 80 percent of all new car purchases, yet they make up only a little over one-quarter of the automotive industry’s workforce. For the women of Deep Orange — Clemson’s flagship vehicle prototyping program – data points like these drive them to want to make an impact in their chosen field of automotive engineering. Learn how three women are bucking this trend by leading their colleagues, championing women’s perspectives and needs in automotive design and why they hope sharing their experience can encourage other young women to pursue careers in engineering.

Rivkah Saldanha was nervous.

As one of four women in her undergraduate engineering class, she knew how to operate as the only woman in the room. But as a graduate student at Clemson applying to build a vehicle prototype with a global automotive company, it felt different. She had just submitted her application with something she had never said before: she wanted to lead the team.

“It felt like a big ask,” she remembers. “I doubted myself and thought, ‘Should I apply for this role, or should I wait for one of my professors to say, ‘Rivkah can do it’?’”

Years after that pivotal moment, Rivkah spends her days at General Motors’s Milford Proving Grounds, developing some of the world’s most powerful cars: high-performance Cadillacs. It’s an incredible feeling to see your work — the 2022 CT4-V Blackwing or Celestiq EV, for example — on the road, she says. “I can’t wait to see these vehicles in the hands of consumers.”

Though Rivkah’s love of cars started long before her time at Clemson, the skills and experience she earned through the Deep Orange vehicle prototype program were crucial to building her confidence as a leader and an engineer, she says. Through Deep Orange, graduate students work as a team to develop and build a one-of-a-kind concept car over two years — a test not only of expertise, but leadership, project management and pure grit.

Rivkah Saldanha (M.S. '14) led a team of automotive engineering graduate students to build a GM-sponsored vehicle prototype.
Rivkah Saldanha (M.S. ’14) led a team of automotive engineering graduate students to build a GM-sponsored vehicle prototype.

“As women, before we say we can do something, we want to prove we can do it. We question ourselves before we even give it a shot.” RIVKAH SALDANHA, DEEP ORANGE 5 | GENERAL MOTORS

And she’s not alone. Women take the same classes, ace the same tests and earn the same GPAs as their male counterparts, yet they are far less likely to choose STEM fields over others and experience significantly higher attrition rates if they do. Men are 2.4 times more likely to work in STEM fields, and only 6.7 percent of women graduate college with a STEM degree, according to Microsoft.

At Clemson, programs such as Deep Orange aim to change that by developing students via hands-on engineering experience. Now in its 13th year, the program draws more and more women from around the world to learn, grow and succeed in automotive engineering. The ExxonMobil-sponsored Deep Orange 11 team boasts women in all levels of leadership. Deep Orange 12 — an autonomous Indy racecar sponsored by EY — relies heavily on women for pivotal roles in programming and structures.

“There’s nowhere else, even in industry, you can learn that much in such a short amount of time and have all of this knowledge you can apply later,” says Rivkah, who led her team of 16 male students to unveil their vehicle in Detroit in 2015. “Things in the real world feel easier once you’ve gone through Deep Orange.”

Lead by doing

The history of Deep Orange – Clemson’s flagship vehicle prototyping program – is full of brilliant women such as Rivkah. Through the program, automotive engineering students complement their graduate studies by developing, engineering and building a one-of-a-kind concept vehicle.

“Having an engineering project that MS students get to work on the entire time they are in grad school is really unique,” says Dr. Johnell Brooks, who has helped mentor students in Deep Orange since its inception. “For the students, the Deep Orange program is about developing and building a vehicle, but what is more important than building each vehicle, is developing the skills of our students so they are prepared for the automotive industry.”

Working hand in hand with industry, each cohort’s goal is to engineer their vehicle to solve a grand challenge. Over the years, students have designed vehicles for a multitude of consumer groups, use cases and environments, balancing their innovations with environmental, social and economic factors faced by OEMs today.

“It is fantastic to see the students’ skills and confidence develop throughout the Deep Orange program. For many years I have been the only female in our department – it is important to me to serve as a mentor for all of the students, but especially our female students,” says Brooks. “The relationships that have developed during Deep Orange are like those of a family and last long after graduation.”

In industry, engineering a vehicle can take up to five years from start to finish including functions such as supply chain management, distribution and safety testing, among others. Deep Orange students don’t aim to mass produce their creation, but rather learn to make decisions based on real-life constraints of budgets, competing priorities, deadlines and even parts availability.

Another real-world element is multiple design reviews where the students present the project’s status to sponsors and stakeholders.

Presenting to high-level executives and experienced engineers was nerve wracking but ultimately excellent practice for the real world, says Yang Yang, the interiors subsystem lead for BMW-sponsored Deep Orange 7 project.

“Meeting with people in such high roles was stressful every time, but it really built my confidence to say what I needed to say in front of all of those people,” says Yang. “As a team, we had to cooperate and solve problems and sometimes even argue about priorities. I learned how to work in a team, when to be humble and when to speak out.”

Today, Yang uses those skills and bolstered confidence as an occupant package engineer at Ford Motor Co., a role very similar to what she did on her Deep Orange team. Her work can be found on nearly every production vehicle Ford manufactures in attributes such as driver visibility, seating position, ingress and egress, among others. While these are the basic requirements needed in any vehicle, getting them wrong could put passengers in danger or cause customers to feel uncomfortable in the vehicle.

Diverse teams for better outcomes

Attributes like ingress and egress fall under the umbrella of human factors, a crucial component of automotive design and a common theme across the program’s last 12 student teams. At Clemson, Dr. Brooks takes the lead to help students understand and apply one of the most important concepts for aspiring automotive engineers: Who is your customer and what do they actually need?

“While excellent engineering is required in all of today’s vehicles, if a potential customer is not comfortable, they likely won’t buy it,” says Brooks. “As human factors psychologists, we study individuals’ capabilities and limitations, we understand the variety of needs of different types of consumers.”

Rivkah and her teammates traveled from dealership to dealership at the beginning of her project to benchmark different types of vehicles. To better understand their target customers, students took turns positioning a baby seat, stroller and life-size doll in each car, testing the fit, function and ease of use in different models.

“It was so realistic, people almost reported us for leaving the doll next to the street in the hot sun,” she recalls with a laugh.

The method is similar to one Dr. Brooks does with her students in automotive engineering every fall. Prior to COVID, students donned pregnancy suits to simulate the dimensional changes of carrying a baby, then tries getting in and out (ingress and egress) of different types of cars. The difference between maneuvering into a slim BMW i8 and a van with a sliding door is staggering, she says.

“Women engineers think about different problems that may apply to women as consumers. The balance is very important – we need many different voices in engineering team to make the best result.”


According to Deloitte, women influence more than 80 percent of all new car purchases, yet they make up only a little over one-quarter of the automotive industry’s workforce – but that might change soon. With a tight labor market and intense engineering talent war, some auto companies recognize women as a competitive advantage in the years ahead.

“Successful companies know that women are exceptional leaders so they are focused on bringing more of them into their organizations and promoting them,” says Suzanne Dickerson, now South Carolina Director of SC Logistics who helped develop the Deep Orange program in 2009. “In my view, the automotive industry is the most exciting industry in existence. And the continued success of this industry in the future will depend on the women in it.”


Built for industry

A crucial component of Deep Orange is how students work closely with industry leaders. With their knowledge and experience in the automotive field, companies offer students a window into industry that few other graduate students can access.

As students attempt one of the most challenging programs of its kind, mentors guide them to avoid common pitfalls, develop interpersonal skills and ingrain best practices to help them after graduation.

Suzanne Dickerson helped the founder of the program, Dr. Paul Venhovens, to first get feedback from OEM partners on how the Deep Orange model would be received, then work with partners to secure components to be integrated into the prototypes. The response was overwhelming, she says.

Since its inception, Deep Orange students have worked with dozens of sponsors ranging from major OEMs and Tier 1, 2 and 3 suppliers to non-traditional companies leading the way in the sustainable mobility space. For Julie Jacobs, global design manager at Sage Automotive Interiors in Greenville, working with Deep Orange students has become a consistent and rewarding component of life at CU-ICAR.

“Deep Orange inspired me just as much as we inspired them,” says Julie. “Not just the fact that we’re helping them select materials, but thinking through what that design selection process is.”

As a leading supplier of high performance fabrics, Sage focuses heavily on trend research and development for the next generation of automotive interiors. Sometimes students were part of that trend research, offering their perspectives and insights as part of their collaboration with the company.

“The Deep Orange project is a huge challenge, and it changes every year with different sponsors and expectations,” she says. “It’s an interesting dynamic and we’re glad to be able to support it.”

In the color, material and finish space (CFM), Julie notes her male colleagues tend to be drawn to exterior vehicle design, while most of textile designers are female. Being a successful leader in the space is less about innate ability or interest, she says, and more about not about embracing design thinking, collaborative working methods and realizing that

“Playing and enjoying it as a journey, those are the characteristics I look for in a leader,” she says. “They don’t see gender, color, race, they just see opportunity and hope. They realize the best design is really the goal, and a functional one.”

“If more women applied that kind of thinking and approach, I think those would be the gods of the industry.”

Changing culture one engineer at a time

Bhavya Mishra has always been fascinated by how things work. From her first foray into automotive engineering with her undergraduate Formula SAE team to her work today at Tesla, she prioritizes learning and understanding to make her a better engineer. Despite her experience, she says, it’s still difficult to shake off the disparities between her and her male teammates.

“Even if it wasn’t overt discrimination, the little things add up,” says Bhavya, who won both a corporate fellowship as well as an outstanding student award while at Clemson. “The first thing I heard after I won was that someone else must have really fought for me, that I only won it because I was a girl. People already thought that maybe I didn’t deserve it, and I got caught up in thinking that as well.”

“When I looked at it from a logical perspective, I deserved it. It took me a long time to accept that.”


Bhavya Mishra (M.S. ’18) engineered Deep Orange 9 in partnership with Honda R&D Americas. Today, her work for Tesla focuses on yet-to-be-released Cybertruck.

The research backs her up. According to the American Sociological Association, women don’t develop ‘expertise confidence’ as quickly as men, making them feel out of place and pushing them out of STEM fields. Studies are also lacking in evidence women leave engineering because of families or deficient math abilities. Instead, the difference seems to stem from subtle differences in the way men and women are treated, often expressed as unconscious micro-biases and micro-aggressions.

Programs such as Deep Orange can go a long way to build that expertise confidence by exposing them to the full range of vehicle design. The challenge — and success — offers tangible evidence of their expertise and capabilities.

“I have a lot to thank Deep Orange for,” agrees Rivkah. “I was able to run meetings and lead a team. I’m not afraid to speak up with questions or say, I disagree with you.’ Each year when I look back at the choices I’ve made and things I’ve accomplished, I don’t think I’d ever been able to do that if I hadn’t led Deep Orange.”

Another culture shift is the stigma around failure, says Bhavya. Rather than feeling ashamed or defeated about missing a target or a failed solution, bouncing back with resilience has opened more doors than she ever could have imagined.

That lesson hit hard while working on her university’s Formula SAE team, a student competition where students conceive, design, fabricate, develop and compete with small, formula-style vehicles.

“We failed miserably. The team fell apart, the car fell apart, our self-esteem fell apart. It was a horrible ending but such an amazing experience that I knew I could do this for the rest of my life,” she remembers. “Back then, it was awful, but even in retrospect, it was magnificent.”

Today, Bhavya can be found in the San Francisco Bay area designing and integrity-testing structural components like doors and hoods for the Tesla Cybertruck, slated for production in late 2021 and available to consumers as early as 2022.

Role models matter

Part of the challenge in recruiting and keeping more women in the auto industry could be the lack of female role models and mentors. Leaders such as GM’s Marry Barra are certainly part of a pivotal shift for women in the industry, but the gap still remains.

In addition to leading the interiors team for Deep Orange 7, Yang Yang (M.S. ’16) designed bespoke origami-based storage solutions for their BMW MINI concept vehicle.“If we keep letting the engineering world be overwhelmingly men, I think younger students when they’re choosing their future careers will automatically delete it as an option – they’ll think it’s not something for them,” says Yang, who thanks her supportive parents for enabling her to embrace her love of science and math at a young age. “If we have more women in engineering, it will give more women and future generations the idea that they can be a part of this field too.”


Rivkah’s love of cars started with her father, whom she calls “a huge car guy.” From there, she started to appreciate the complexity of those powerful machines and realized she wanted to be a part of it. In response to the guidance and support she’s felt from other successful women across her career, Rivkah feels compelled to pay it forward for the next generation of leaders.

“I would love to share what I’ve learned, whether it’s saying I feel your pain or your happiness,” she says. “Sometimes the hurdle becomes a lot less intimidating when you know someone else has been in that situation before and gotten through it.”

Now in its 12th year, Deep Orange draws more women each year from around the world to learn, grow and succeed in automotive engineering. The ExxonMobil-sponsored Deep Orange 11 team boasts women in all levels of leadership. The most recent prototype – an autonomous Indy racecar sponsored by EY – relies heavily on women for pivotal roles in programming, structures and leadership.

“If you love cars, love getting people moving, love making things greener, definitely pursue a career in automotive education,” says Rivkah. “Whether you’re a male or a female, everyone should have the opportunity to do what you love as a career.”

Clemson Autonomous Racecar featured at CES

January 15th, 2021

Indy Autonomous Challenge unveils racecar for world’s first head-to-head, high-speed autonomous race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

“The Dallara-built IAC racecar is the most advanced, fastest autonomous vehicle ever developed.” Paul Mitchell, president and CEO of ESN

INDIANAPOLIS  (JAN 11, 2021) — Energy Systems Network (ESN) and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), organizers of the Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC), today unveiled the official racecar that will be autonomously driven by scores of university teams in the world’s first high-speed, head-to-head autonomous race at the Racing Capital of the World on Oct. 23, 2021.

The primary goal of the IAC is to advance technologies that can speed the commercialization of fully autonomous vehicles and advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), leading to increased safety and performance. In addition, the IAC is a challenging competition to excite the best and brightest university students from around the world to engage in hands-on engineering firsts.

“The Dallara-built IAC racecar is the most advanced, fastest autonomous vehicle ever developed,” stated Paul Mitchell, president and CEO of ESN, and co-organizer of the IAC. “Our IAC sponsors are providing radar, lidar, optical cameras and advanced computers, bringing the value of each vehicle to $1 million.”

IAC Unveiling _JGS-2020-Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-199508-1 - retouched - resizedThe IAC is scheduled for October 23, 2021, at the IMS, with a qualifying simulation race during the Indy 500 week in May. The total IAC prize purse is $1.5 million: $1 million awarded to the winning team of the October IAC race, and an additional $500,000 for winners of the hackathons and simulation races, awarded by IAC sponsor, Ansys.

More than 500 undergraduate and graduate students, PhDs and mentors who excel in artificial intelligence software, have responded to the challenge, representing 39 universities in 11 countries on four continents and 14 U.S. states.

Inspiration for the IAC was the DARPA Grand Challenge, as explained by 2005 winner, Sebastian Thrun: “The DARPA Grand Challenge proved that robots can drive themselves in very confined environments, but that they don’t have the agility and skill of a really well-trained human racecar driver to act in extreme situations. IMS is the best place in the world to challenge the robotics community to test self-driving cars. By going into a racing context, we will stretch self-driving cars to the absolute limit.”

The Modified Dallara IL-15 Autonomous Racecar 

Since 2002, Dallara has been the sole racecar supplier of the Indy Lights series, and now the modified Dallara IL-15 is the official IAC racecar.

“Dallara is the best racecar engineering company in the world yet designing the chassis for autonomous racing was really challenging,” explained Stefano dePonti, CEO and general manager of Dallara USA. “Dallara loves innovation and technological challenges, and we share the IAC’s passion for education and motorsports.”

Dallara IL-15 photo

The modified Dallara is retrofitted with hardware and controls to enable automation to enhance safety, control and performance. Components include rugged-edge on-board computing, vehicle-to-vehicle communications, perception systems, high-end graphics processing units (GPUs), drive-by-wire, and artificial intelligence acceleration and powerful central processing units to run IAC teams’ software and algorithms in the racecar.

One of the challenges for autonomous racing is solving edge case scenarios – challenges that occur only at extreme operating parameters, such as avoiding unanticipated obstacles at high speeds.

“We know how the world’s best racecar drivers react in the Dallara, in high-speed scenarios, but now we have to anticipate the actions of a robot,” added dePonti.

Innovation at IMS

IMS has been a catalyst and proving ground for motorsport and transportation innovation since its inception in 1909. IMS hosts the crown jewel of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, the Indianapolis 500 — annually the world’s largest single-day sporting event. The NTT INDYCAR SERIES is North America’s premier open-wheel racing series.

“The IAC is going to bring the best minds from around the world to solve a very complex problem, right here at the Racing Capital of the World,” IMS President J. Douglas Boles said. “As the birthplace of motorsports’ innovation, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a fitting setting for this event, and we can’t wait to see the winning entry cross the Yard of Bricks into history.”

IAC Sponsors and Contributors

Indiana Economic Development Corporation, ADLINK, Ansys, Aptiv, AutonomouStuff, Bridgestone, Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR), Dallara, Microsoft, New Eagle, PWR, RTI, Schaeffler, and Valvoline. See IndyAChallenge.com for more information about these amazing companies realizing autonomous mobility.

About the Indy Autonomous Challenge

The Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC), organized by Energy Systems Network and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is a $1.5 million prize competition among universities to program modified Dallara IL-15 racecars and compete in the world’s first autonomous head-to-head race around the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway on October 23, 2021. Racing at speeds of up to 200 mph, the primary goal of the IAC is to advance technology that can speed the commercialization of fully autonomous vehicles and deployments of advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS). These enhancements will lead to increased safety and performance in all modes of racing and commercial transportation. In addition, the competition is a platform for students to excel in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

About Energy Systems Network (ESN)

ESN is one of the primary organizers of the Indy Autonomous Challenge. ESN was founded in 2009, as part of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (CICP), to accelerate the pace of energy and transportation technology development and commercialization. ESN works with companies throughout the world to advance new technologies and solutions through industry research, pilot projects, collaborative convening and the development and deployment of innovation models. ESN has played a leading role in launching the first and largest all-electric car sharing system in the U.S., the largest electric bus fleet, and the first Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) public fleet contract.

About the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS)

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the world’s largest spectator sporting facility, has been the worldwide leader in motorsports entertainment since opening in 1909. IMS hosts the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, the world’s largest single-day annual sporting event, which features the stars of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Additional major races at the famed venue also include INDYCAR’s GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course and one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard.

Clemson, U.S. Army to develop next generation of autonomous vehicle tools

January 12th, 2021
Image of military vehicles driving on dirt roads.

This past summer at Fort Carson, Col., modified Bradley Fighting Vehicles, known as Mission Enabling Technologies Demonstrators, and modified M113 tracked armored personnel carriers, or Robotic Combat Vehicles, were used for the Soldier Operational Experimentation (SOE) Phase 1 to further develop learning objectives for the Manned Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) concept.

Automotive autonomy technology is changing economies and global industries – and is also a driving force behind military modernization. Bringing these self-driving vehicles to life on- and off-road requires new concepts and algorithms to be tested expeditiously and cost-effectively – all of which happen through virtual prototyping. This key enabler for autonomy is the focus behind a new $18 million center housed at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) and a research partnership with the U.S. Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC).

The Virtual Prototyping of Ground Systems (VIPR-GS) Center will serve as the impetus for the research project. As founding director of VIPR-GS, Zoran Filipi will lead more than 65 Clemson faculty across seven engineering departments on the multi-year research partnership with GVSC to develop virtual prototyping tools supporting the rapid transformation of U.S. Army fleets. The research will be focused on autonomy-enabled ground vehicles, including digital engineering, next-generation propulsion and energy systems, and manned and unmanned teaming in unknown off-road environments.

The Center will leverage a systems engineering approach to propel research breakthroughs in off-road vehicle autonomy and vehicle propulsion. Research activities will also take place on Clemson’s main campus and will include learning opportunities for students at all levels.

“Autonomous systems and connected vehicles are some of the most significant factors shaping the mobility industry today, and the work being done in off-road autonomy is truly the next frontier. CU-ICAR was designed to foster research and partnerships to benefit our future. Through our deep research strengths and interdisciplinary culture, Clemson is uniquely positioned to lead the way in this important work,” said Clemson President Jim Clements.

Breakthrough research for autonomous off-road development

Researchers will build and validate various virtual models and simulations for off-road vehicles with advanced electrified propulsion, situational intelligence, AI-enabled autonomy and team-routing algorithms. The Center will support one of the Army Big Six Modernization Priorities – developing next-generation combat vehicles – by providing tools for technology roadmaps and hardware demonstrations.

“The VIPR Center will be an essential part of a Ground Vehicle Modeling and Simulation Alliance that GVSC will rely on as it leads the U.S. Army in the integration of new capabilities into military ground vehicles,” said David Gorsich, US GVSC Chief Scientist.

Three themes characterize the research efforts: Off-road autonomy for multi-scale vehicle fleets; propulsion systems and smart energy; and virtual prototyping and digital engineering for autonomy-enabled off-road vehicles. Models, algorithms, analytical capabilities and decision-making tools resulting from the research will be evaluated by building a physical mock-up of an optionally manned, non-combat, off-road ground vehicle. As the project’s final phase, discoveries and breakthrough innovations from the Center will be fabricated and validated via Deep Orange, the University’s long-running educational prototyping program.

The Deep Orange program takes automotive engineering students through a two-year product development process that culminates in a fully functional concept. The program encourages learning by doing, transdisciplinary teamwork, leadership and project management skills to best prepare students for the workforce. Deep Orange has been sponsored by industry leaders such as AVX, BMW, ExxonMobil, EY, Ford, GM, Honda R&D Americas, Mazda, MINI and Toyota.

Driving innovation through industry partnerships

The Center’s impact will reach beyond any single project by compressing time needed for design and development in the autonomous space. Not only will this allow partners to significantly reduce timelines for innovation, but virtual prototyping enables new design capabilities that cut across industry sectors and applications.

Center leadership will involve industry to amplify breakthrough innovation and translation. By aligning strategic partners with Clemson’s research strengths in artificial intelligence, simulation and advanced computing, the Center will fuel the next wave of mobility to be smarter, safer and more robust.

As one of the nation’s most active research institutions, the Center builds on Clemson’s national reputation for research excellence. Clemson was recently cited alongside some of the nation’s most elite universities as a top “10 Innovative Engineering Institute,” by Mechanical Engineering, the flagship magazine of The American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

The Center is designed to accelerate the development and validation of high impact technologies, acting as a catalyst for economic growth. Driven by fundamental research, the Center supports South Carolina’s economic development efforts, industry innovation priorities and the development of a highly skilled workforce.

“This type of work is the driving force behind why South Carolina invested in our idea for the CU-ICAR campus, and we are grateful for the legislature’s continued support and the hard work of Congressman Clyburn and Senator Graham to bring this project to life. It will pave the way for opportunities for our faculty, our students and our state,” said Clements.

Funding for VIPR-GS is from the United States Department of Defense.


Additional quotes for media consideration

“For the last decade, we have diligently strengthened and expanded our capabilities to become the nationally-recognized institution we are today,” said Zoran Filipi, chair of the Department of Automotive Engineering and founding director of the VIPR-GS Center. “From our skilled autonomous vehicle research team to our unmatched expertise in advanced propulsion and systems engineering DNA, this is exactly the type of high-impact, multi-disciplinary, ambitious research challenge we were built for.”

“Our innovation campuses were founded to create partnerships that provide key research and learning opportunities to benefit South Carolina, the region, and the nation, and we are thankful for our government partners and their continued support of the CU-ICAR campus,” said Angie Leidinger, vice president for External Affairs. “This funding is a true testament to the value Clemson provides to research and industry, and we look forward to engaging corporate partners across the country to participate in this work with us.”

“This award is a testament to the transformative, world-class research we are pursuing at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) in the broader area of transportation,” said Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences at Clemson University. “Under the leadership of Dr. Filipi, we have assembled the world’s brightest engineers and scientists to work on solving some of the most compelling multidisciplinary problems in autonomous systems and connected vehicles.”

“This center aligns greatly with Clemson’s growing research strengths and expertise, as well as our robust workforce development efforts and industry collaborations that fuel innovation and economic growth. This is sure to be a win for Clemson faculty and students, the U.S. Army and the state of South Carolina,” said Tanju Karanfil, vice president for research.

Clemson builds advanced composites reputation with new research center

September 29th, 2020

Clemson Composites Center to support partners, state through high-impact R&D

When it comes to mega trends driving efficiency and sustainability for industry, the advanced materials space is one of the fastest growing high-potential areas for technological advancement.

In response to industry demand, Clemson University has partnered with the State of South Carolina to launch a full-spectrum advanced materials research and development center to drive breakthrough innovation for the state’s automotive, aerospace, defense and energy clusters.

The Clemson Composites Center combines decades of expertise and state-of-the-art equipment to bring all stages of the engineering lifecycle in one institution, from fundamental science and molecular engineering to rapid prototyping and full-scale commercialization.

“The complexity of high-impact innovation requires collaboration across partners from multiple sectors, which is why we continue to prioritize and invest in advanced manufacturing expertise and infrastructure,” Clemson President Jim Clements said. “This Center has already proven to be a research and development catalyst for the state and will continue to do so for many decades into the future.”

The 6,500-square-foot Center will strengthen the University and South Carolina’s national reputation for innovative composites research for the mobility industry, including the engineering of lighter, stronger, affordable, more sustainable composites solutions for cars, planes and beyond.

Srikanth Pilla

“Lightweight and advanced materials are crucial for a more sustainable and efficient future,” Clemson Composites Center Founding Director Srikanth Pilla said. “Everything we’ve built is designed to catalyze breakthrough innovation, from the Center’s integrated physical infrastructure to our holistic, interdisciplinary research and development approach. By working hand in hand with our partners, we’re can better deliver high-TRL research that moves us towards that goal.”

The heart of the Center – a new composites material laboratory – is being commissioned at the Greenville Technical College’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI), adjacent to the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR). The lab will come online as early as Q1 2021. As part of CMI, the Center can expand aspects of technical training for Greenville Technical College’s advanced manufacturing and engineering students. A key component of the Center’s vision is to address workforce development challenges by offering graduate and technical students to chance to both collaborate, learn and  innovate in the same state-of-the-art research space.

The Center’s first project will be the completion of Pilla’s ambitious $5.8M research project to redesign a driver’s side door to be lighter, stronger and smarter using advanced composites. The interdisciplinary project team – which includes the U.S. Department of Energy and Honda R&D Americas, among other partners – will use the Center’s specialized equipment to build and validate the final prototype. The project has pushed the limits of component and material design for lightweighting, proving manufacturers don’t have to sacrifice safety, function, fit or production costs for fuel efficiency and sustainability.

Working closely with companies, the Center is designed to accelerate the development and validation of high impact technologies, acting as a catalyst for economic growth. By transforming and commercializing cost-effective, efficient and sustainable solutions, the Center supports South Carolina’s economic development efforts, industry innovation priorities and the development a highly skilled workforce.

Two men hold automotive parts, inspecting them together.

“The Clemson Composites Center is part of South Carolina’s broader strategy to develop innovative resources for the aerospace and automotive sectors, which are critical to continued economic development within our borders,” said South Carolina Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt. “This is a powerful tool to both attract new industry and help existing businesses grow and succeed in our state.”

The advanced materials industry, which includes composite materials, has brought 10,200 advanced materials jobs and $7.2 billion in capital investment to the state since 2011, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce. South Carolina is home to more than 800 advanced materials and composites companies.

“From OEMs to suppliers in automotive, aerospace and beyond, the global reputation of CU-ICAR is directly tied to our ability to support our partners and advance economic development in South Carolina,” said David Clayton, CU-ICAR Executive Director and assistant vice president for the Office of Corporate Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives. “We’re proud to say this new center does both.”

The Clemson Composites Center will launch with a cross-disciplinary leadership team and professional staff, and will be driven by support from research assistants, PhD students and CU-ICAR technicians.



Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research
The Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) is a 250-acre advanced-technology research campus where university, industry and government organizations collaborate. CU-ICAR offers master’s and Ph.D. programs in automotive engineering and is conducting leading-edge applied research in critical areas, such as advanced product-development strategies, sustainable mobility, intelligent manufacturing systems and advanced materials. CU-ICAR has industrial-scale laboratories and testing equipment in world-class facilities.

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