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Schmitz Reflects on First Year of $1M Gene Haas Grant

The US machining and manufacturing sector has been making all the wrong kinds of cuts.

There are 25% fewer manufacturing firms operating in the US today than there were in 1997. The national trade deficit for manufactured goods more than doubled between 2010 and 2019. Most concerningly, the US is expected to experience a 10% deficit in highly skilled machinists by 2030.

“These reductions are critical because domestic manufacturing affects both national security and economic health,” warned Tony Schmitz, a professor in UT’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering (MABE).

To combat the shortage of manufactured goods, machine tools, and talented machinists, MABE opened the Machine Tool Research Center (MTRC), which Schmitz has directed since 2019. While the MTRC started on UT’s Knoxville campus, the center moved to the Tennessee Manufacturing and Design Enterprise Building (TN-MADE) in 2023.

At the MTRC, students from the high school to graduate level are trained in fundamental skills that enable them to produce accurate components quickly, including numerical modeling, fundamental research techniques and data analysis, and physics-based machine learning techniques.

“The idea that we can retain innovation while outsourcing manufacturing has been refuted,” Schmitz said. “We need next-generation machines that can produce more, higher-quality components than their predecessors, and we need a workforce that can meet high productivity demands on those machines with little previous experience.”

The MTRC maintains many machining centers produced by Haas Manufacturing Automation Inc., one of the industry’s most-recognized companies. The company’s founder and owner, Gene Haas, also founded the Gene Haas Foundation (GHF), which is dedicated to recruiting and developing young skilled workers in manufacturing.

In support of this mutual goal, the GHF donated $1 million to the MTRC last year. So far, the grant has allowed for the creation of the Gene Haas Machine Tool Research Academy within the MTRC; the purchase of many new machining supplies for research, education, and training; and the development of several events that enrich the experiences of machinists at UT and across the region.

2023 SEC Machining Competition

In 2022, Schmitz started the SEC Machining Competition, in which student teams from participating universities compete in precision machining tasks.

At the 2023 event, which was hosted at TN-MADE, UT students faced off (and won) against teams from the University of Missouri, the University of Florida, Texas A&M University, and Mississippi State University.

“The purpose of the competition is to promote advanced manufacturing education and training, learn more about computer numerical control (CNC) machining, and demonstrate each team’s capabilities,” Schmitz said.

The GHF grant bolstered support from sponsors including Project MFG, the Department of Defense Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment (IBAS) program, the Southeastern Advanced Machine Tools Network (SEAMTN), and the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute (UT-ORII), contributing to the 2023 competition’s success.

Monthly Guest Seminars

With GHF funding, Schmitz has implemented monthly lunch-and-learn seminars that bring MTRC members news and training on the cutting edge of manufacturing and scientific communication.

The seminars are open to UT faculty and students; personnel from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Y-12 National Security Complex, the US Department of Energy’s Composites Institute (IACMI); and members of SEAMTN.

“These seminars have enabled exposure to new research, training in relevant topics, and expanded collaborations for the East Tennessee manufacturing ecosystem,” Schmitz said.

In addition to speakers from UT, the seminars have included presentations from experts at Purdue University, Tennessee Tech University, and Virginia Tech.

Internal Tours, External Conferences

Thanks to the GHF, the MTRC has been able to open its doors to students and teachers from middle schools, high schools, community colleges, and universities as well as to industry professionals. More than 1,000 visitors have toured the MTRC over the past year.

“The GHF tours showcase the research and training activities being conducted by the MTRC faculty, staff, and students,” Schmitz said. “They also include hands-on demonstrations completed using the MTRC manufacturing equipment.”

Being a part of the GHF network also allows UT faculty and students at the MTRC to attend the Haas Technical Education Community conferences, deepening UT’s connections with other organizations that promote machining and manufacturing education and development.


Izzie Gall (865-974-7203,