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A Manufacturer's Cinderella Story

There is a growing cluster afoot and it is in East Tennessee.  How do I know this?  Five organizations that comprise the AMP!, the Advanced Manufacturing and Prototyping Center, collaborated to connect Nanomechanics a regional manufacturer to a potential customer in Germany who needed to see a 3D prototype before signing on the dotted line.  With the AMP! team brokering the connection with Oak Ridge, Nanomechanics produced a 3D prototype which was shipped to Germany and subsequently fit into their system like Cinderella’s shoe on her foot!

Now for the details of this story...

In 2012, the Obama administration announced that 10 public-private partnerships across America will receive funding to help revitalize American manufacturing and encourage companies to invest in the United States.  One of the awardees was AMP! – The Advanced Manufacturing & Prototype Center of East Tennessee.

AMP! established an Advanced Manufacturing industry cluster in East Tennessee, creating a collaborative environment where manufacturers work together with economic development resources, workforce development organizations, and research institutions to collaborate on the development of advanced manufacturing technologies, and their implementation, to expand and grow manufacturing capabilities within the AMP! Region.   The five organizations that comprise AMP! are; Technology 2020, the TN MEP Center, Oak Ridge National Lab, Pellissippi State Community College and the University of TN.

Nanomechanics, Inc., an AMP! regional manufacturer, produces the InSEM mechanical properties microprobe for use in scanning electron microscopes (SEM) and vacuum environments.  This tool allows researchers to target locations and watch specimens deform while the mechanical properties are measured with nanometer and nanoNewton precision.  Nanomechanics is internationally known for their SEM microprobes and recently won a 2013 R&D 100 Award for the InSEM HT - a high temperature mechanical properties microprobe which operates inside an SEM.

Designing tools for use in a variety of SEM chambers requires detailed knowledge of the chamber itself as well as the many detectors and probes that are used inside SEMs.  Most of the SEM manufacturers that Nanomechanics works with are willing to provide 3D CAD models of the chamber, and often will also provide models that include the various detectors and probes in place on a given chamber.  With this information, Nanomechanics is able to integrate the InSEM into the chamber with a high degree of confidence that the field-installation will proceed smoothly - that the InSEM probe will be properly positioned in the SEM beam, and that the InSEM will not interfere with any of the other detectors or probes.

Occasionally, a SEM manufacturer may be reluctant to provide the 3D model, or a SEM chamber may predate 3D CAD tools.  There may also be 3rd party probes or detectors installed.  In such circumstances, it is generally necessary to make physical measurements of dimensions, mounting holes, and spatial relationships in order to design the integration of the InSEM.  Access to the customer's chamber then becomes necessary, and with Nanomechanics  international customer base, such pre-sale visits can be very expensive.

In one recent case, a potential customer in Germany wanted to move forward quickly, but could not provide the 3D models.  Rather than schedule a trip to the customer's site, Nanomechanics contacted AMP! in Oak Ridge to see if a 3D printer could produce a prototype shape of the InSEM.

AMP! was able to rapidly and accurately print the part from the model, and the next week the prototype was provided to the potential customer.  It fits properly into their SEM chamber, did not interfere with any of the other probes or detectors, and the customer contacted Nanomechanics to place an order for the system, resulting in a sizeable export contract for the company.

To see their work in action visit:

East Tennessee is not the only region in the country that has a burgeoning cluster.  Nine other AMJIAC projects reaching the end of their first year of funding are beginning to show successful outcomes.  Stay tuned for additional blogs espousing those successes.

About the author

Heidi Sheppard

Heidi Sheppard serves on the Partnership Team at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) developing strategic partnerships and making connections that further MEP's mission. She is the lead for the Advanced Manufacturing Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge grant, the Maker to Manufacturer initiative, the Start Up, Rural and Very Small Manufacturing firms engagement, and the current study on the Value of Industrial Design for Small Manufacturers. She seeks out new opportunities for the MEP System, makes connections and grows partnerships.

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