Scores of college students, some with electric skateboards tucked under arms, flocked to the student union on Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus in southeast Mesa last month for a standing-room-only Q&A with executives from electric-vehicle startup Lucid, which makes cars in Casa Grande.
They asked questions about the electric vehicle industry and afterward students crowded around Lucid employees outside like they were celebrities, with knots of students breaking away to inspect some of the high-end EVs parked nearby.
While Lucid’s leaders were in demand, in many ways the students were the stars of the networking event.
With the passage of the CHIPs and Inflation Reduction Acts, a race is on to grow U.S. production of microchips and energy technologies, but to onshore these industries, the U.S. and Arizona will need thousands of more engineers and technicians than they currently have.
Even before those bills, pandemic supply chain disruptions had renewed interest in onshoring manufacturing – a movement which Mesa is trying to get a piece of.
Polytechnic School Director Kurt Paterson said there is already an “insatiable” demand for skilled workers, with some juniors on the 5,000-student campus lining job offers more than a year before graduation.
Paterson was worried Lucid Day might see a lower turnout since fall is the prime recruiting season, but the turnout was huge, something he credited to students’ enthusiasm for EVs.
“This is one of the signs that the EV revolution is happening,” Paterson said, gazing at the crowd. “It resonates with students.”
The enthusiasm may also bode well for Arizona’s ability to develop the talent pool it needs to become a manufacturing hub, particularly in electric vehicles and batteries, two industries that have taken root.
Factories of the future
Tucked in a cul-de-sac of land adjacent to Mesa Gateway Airport on 600 acres of the former Williams Air Force Base, ASU’s Polytechnic campus can be easy to miss amid all the high-profile developments in the Southeast Valley.
However, ASU Poly’s presence has already aided the economic explosion in the area, helping to build the case for manufacturing in the East Valley with the promise of skilled workers nearby and collaborations between industry and ASU.
Today, the campus boasts advanced manufacturing equipment like metal 3D printers, which are million-dollar pieces of equipment, and partnerships with major manufacturers in the region like Boeing, which helps the school develop curriculum.
But plans are underway to significantly expand the campus to meet the current moment.
“ASU Poly is going to be one of the growth areas for Arizona State University,” said Dr. Binil Starly, a manufacturing researcher who was tapped last fall to lead the new School of Manufacturing Systems and Networks.
He said ASU wants the Polytechnic to be the “center of focus” for its various manufacturing programs, so it can support companies in the East Valley looking to ramp up operations or companies outside the state interested in relocating.
According to Starly, ASU Poly has a lot of room to grow, with just 100 of its 600 acres developed.
At this year’s State of the City address, ASU President Michael Crow told the crowd his goal is to triple or quadruple the current enrollment of ASU Poly.
He also announced a $200 million investment in the ASU Poly campus.
Starly said much of that money is earmarked for a planned 180,000-square-foot Polytechnic Engineering Research Building slated to open in fall of 2025.
Once built, it would become the largest building on the campus, and will “scream manufacturing in every shape and form,” Starly said.
The first floor of the building will be “laid out like a mini factory that enables students or parents or prospective industry to come and walk and actually experience how things are being made and built and tested,” he said.
The mini factory will include “some of the most advanced equipment that already you can buy or that you’re going to build.”
Some of that money, Starly added, will also be used to upgrade infrastructure on the World War II-era campus.
He said one piece of critical infrastructure needed for manufacturing that surprises people is network connectivity, because modern factories are “very data intensive.”
“Our metal 3D printers, I was just informing our architects, these things are going to generate terabytes of data for a single part to be built,” Starly said.
A terabyte is enough data to store 250 full-length movies.
But manufacturing, unlike other domains, also requires plenty of physical space, and the ASU Poly campus provides that, too.
Starly believes ASU Poly could play an even greater role in the local economy than it already does.
He said that the manufacturing research conducted at the campus could persuade more companies to locate their research and development facilities in Mesa, in addition to their factories.
Lucid’s engineers, for example, work from California, but build the cars in Arizona. Why can’t they do both here?
Starly believes an expanded ASU Poly could also have national significance in the rush to make more things within U.S. borders.
For one, he said, moving production to the U.S. where labor costs are higher, will require greater automation.
But research is needed to figure out how to automate some processes. Starly said that manufacturing semiconductors is a challenging process to automate, and figuring out how to produce the chips with fewer employees could be a critical area of research in the near future.
An even bigger hurdle may be figuring out how to train the thousands of engineers needed to meet the current national goals.
Starly thinks ASU Poly could be on the cutting edge of this.
“For the last 20 years, we have seen a decline of manufacturing facilities going outside the U.S., and now we see ever since the pandemic a resurgence of manufacturing back into the U.S.,” Starly said.
“ASU is taking this novel idea of college and a school entirely focused on manufacturing systems, and many other universities are watching this exercise,” he said.
“So it is critical this particular school be successful, not just for ASU, but really for the entire country. Because if ASU is successful in this experiment, other universities are going to copy it.”
Other Lucid engineers mingled with polytechnic students.
ASU Polytechnic alumnus Ben Heckthorne, a thermal engineer for Lucid based at the Casa Grande plant, said ASU Poly provided good experience for his role with the car maker.
Heckthorne, a third generation Arizonan, said he became fascinated by electric cars after the release of the Tesla Roadster, and at ASU Poly, he participated in the school’s Baja team, a nationwide competition between student-built off-road vehicles.
“I loved the hands-on experience,” he said of ASU Poly’s project-based curriculum.
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