When Pilla first arrived at the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences at Clemson, the idea for a Clemson Composites Center — a one-stop-shop for academic research, design development and real-world manufacturing solutions — was already in his mind’s eye. He envisioned a place where he and his fellow researchers could create real-world applications of academic research designed to net huge gains for the industry.
But bringing that vision to life, like so many novel ideas, would require years of perseverance, outreach and collaboration.
Today, Pilla is a 40-year-old father of three children, ages 1 to 10. His new Composites Center is already doing the work of streamlining vehicle-component manufacturing, such as car doors and center consoles in high-end vehicles.
But when Pilla first proposed the idea of a composites center, he was a young, 30-something automotive engineering professor just starting at Clemson. At the time, there was nothing regionally and very little nationally, or even internationally, to hold up as a model of success for such a center.
“I said, ‘We know that it’s a high risk. But we’re willing to take that risk,’” Pilla recalls of his early conversations with various leaders in academics. Even now, Pilla says his research group is one of only a couple in the world approaching composites manufacturing in this way.
He took his first steps forward in 2013 by presenting the Composites Center concept to his department chair. He received encouragement but persisted with caution, leading to a larger college-level meeting with faculty from cross-disciplinary areas. Although it was “fruitful” to assemble such a large gathering of eminent scholars, he recalls, the idea didn’t progress — at least not right away.
There were starts and stops, opportunities and challenges, but advancing his vision — and the chance for success he knew it would provide for young engineering students and industry alike — never left Pilla’s horizon. Then, in 2015, there was a breakthrough: a $5.81 million award from the Department of Energy to fund his research on creating fuel-saving, ultralightweight doors.
When the grant was submitted, even though it was not for the Composites Center specifically, it boosted his confidence in the idea of such a place. Clemson was the only university to receive the DOE award at the time, which, he explains, was “a big deal.”
“Universities are known for the fundamental research, not the technology,” he continues. “But with the DOE grant, people started trusting the vision; then they started believing that this is something that can actually be done at Clemson.”
Next, Pilla worked through the University’s Office of Corporate Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives to reach out to industry stakeholders and solicit their input on exactly how they would use the technology his group was advancing. He connected with people in business to talk to them about creating products that everyday people could use.
Relationship by relationship, contact by contact, he rallied support behind his ideas. By 2017, University leadership, the South Carolina legislature and the general supply chain were behind him, academically and financially. In 2018, the University broke ground on the Clemson Composites Center. Construction wrapped up in late 2019, and the center came fully online in late 2020.
“The unique infrastructure for composites,” Pilla says, “was created.”