Why manufacturing is thriving in Tennessee

Why manufacturing is thriving in Tennessee

May 23, 2024
"Manufacturing it still has a huge place in the economy. A lot of things are being driven by innovation, but at the end of the day the innovation still has to be brought to the consumer market, which is where manufacturing kicks in."

Glenn Jacobs is the Mayor of Knox County, TN. Heavy industry in the State of Tennessee is booming, especially automotive, and Knox County has added more than 2,500 jobs and seen $217 million in capital investment under the leadership of Mayor Jacobs. In this podcast, Plant Services chief editor Thomas Wilk gets in the ring with Mayor Jacobs to talk about several projects that are growing this manufacturing and industrial base.

Listen to Glenn Jacobs on Great Question: A Manufacturing Podcast

PS: Let me ask you about a specific manufacturing sector, which is hot; electric vehicles and battery plants. We've noticed here at Plant Services as we drop pins on our new plant / plant expansion map, there's a lot of work going on in the Carolinas and Georgia all the way over through Kentucky and Tennessee. Do you see that your state’s transportation manufacturing base, that traditional base, is helping to compete for things like the EV and battery plants? I’m thinking of something like Blue Oval City being built outside of Memphis.

GJ: Absolutely, in fact, it's the entire transportation sector. Tennessee is now one of the nation's largest producer of automobiles. We're not known for that, but we are. We have a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, a Nissan plant in Smyrna, TN. Then yes, Blue Oval City in West Tennessee. Blue Oval City is a project from Ford, it's where they're going to produce the F-150 Lightnings, and that will end up being a bigger operation than what they have in Dearborn, MI. It's absolutely enormous. 

We see that even here, we have companies here again because of our niche in nuclear energy, but also just energy overall. We see some of that happening here as far as the battery manufacturers, we have one here in town. They make everything from high performance conventional car batteries to literally electricity banks. Then we had a company just come here that's named VOITAS, they're a German company, they're going to have about 30 engineers and some other folks that are working here, and they're just getting their start in North America, so it's really cool that they picked Knox County. They have a patented garage wall charger for electric vehicles that has a retractable cord. They're the only one that does this. Everybody else has your wrap-around cord, but theirs retracts. And then they also figure out how to make electric motors more effective and more efficient, so they work with companies on that as well. 

We have a company here, it's a nonprofit, it's called EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute), and what they do is they work with private companies and look at electricity and say, with solar panels, how do you make them more effective? How do you make them more high performance? When you're looking at just transmission of electricity, how do you do that better? So we’re really well positioned because of that legacy in nuclear energy to take advantage of many of the things that are happening across the country and across the world.

When we think about the transition to EV vehicles and our thing we have to keep in mind is, a lot of folks think that the world runs on oil. The world actually runs on electricity. That's it. The grid, if there's any issues with that, everything stops. That's another tremendous opportunity for people in manufacturing, for companies in manufacturing, is what's going to happen with the grid going forward. We have all this new demand, and frankly, nationwide, the grid’s antiquated. We really need to catch up not only with EV's, but you know, we're talking over our computers right now, and everything that we do uses much more electricity than we have in the past. 

I saw something the other day, I was talking to one of the other county mayors, they're actually up closer to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. These data centers, like for AI, they literally require their own power plant. The amount of power and the amount of electricity that they're using is just off the chart. So there's tremendous opportunity I think throughout the electricity energy sector of the economy, from EVs all the way to production and distribution, better efficiency, all those sort of things.

PS: You know, it’s kind of neat in real time at these maintenance conferences to see people who maintain data centers develop out that as a discipline in real time. You know, you've got. Your traditional manufacturing, the widget type maintenance where people grease the bearings, they test the motors, things like that. But then you've got these facilities which are sprouting up everywhere like you said, especially data centers which have a unique requirement to maintain 24/7 availability and n + 1 redundancy. It's a whole new offshoot of what the people that we're talking to today are looking at, is how do you maintain these facilities? How do you keep them going? It’s going to be a growth industry as far as I'm going to live, I think.

GJ: Absolutely, and of course the electricity demand is like nothing like we've ever seen before, frankly.

PS: We'll get you out of here on this one. I was curious to know what your day-to-day, month-to-month interaction is like with the other mayors of counties. You've got large industrial county bases like Davis & Rutherford, and Shelby on the west end of the state. Do you hold regular conversations with your counterparts? Do you have regular meetings? How does that work?

GJ: I talk more with our regional mayors than anything else, the ones that are surrounding here in East Tennessee. Generally, the way things work is the state really is kind of the gateway. If companies say want to come here, they generally contact the state – sometimes they'll talk to our chamber, but a lot of times they'll just go through the state – and then the state will let the chambers around the state know what's going on. In Knox County, we don't have a dedicated economic development wing; our chamber does that, and we contract with them, and they have a lot of those conversations. 

Now, we are involved as far as when we have a prospect that's going to come here, and I'm hoping very soon we're going to be able to announce one of the biggest economic development projects in the county's history. And its manufacturing, which is awesome, you know? But they came through the chamber. So much of that is really handled with the state Department of Economic and Community Development and then also the various Chambers of Commerce around the state. One thing that that we've done here is we've streamlined our structure, and done some things that hopefully make it easier for companies to know, “hey, this is the person you talked to, this is how the process works.” And we've had a great deal of success with that. But as far as the day-to-day, that's generally handled by our chamber or the state.

PS: Thank you for explaining it. I’m curious to know how counties and cities and these municipalities are interacting. One title that is new to me is Chief Manufacturing Officer of the State of Connecticut and I’m crossing my fingers that that title gets rolled out more because apparently that's the only role that's kind across the US. He's doing the kind of work that you're doing, making connections, talking to business, forecasting where manufacturing is going.

GJ: It's an exciting world. It really is. One of the neatest things about this job is I get to go visit these plants and these businesses and to the extent that I'm able, to kind of understand how this all works and how it's just evolved so much over the even the past decade or so. 

Manufacturing it still has a huge place in the economy. A lot of things are being driven by innovation, but at the end of the day the innovation still has to be brought to the consumer market, which is where manufacturing kicks in. One of the groups of people I have immense respect for is industrial engineers who are designing these super high tech assembly lines. They’re robotic, but I mean, it's just amazing, they have a football field long line that they're doing all these different things, and I'm always like how in the world can someone figure that out? It’s just so complex and so complicated. 

And then as you guys talk about, someone has to maintain that. There's a company here that makes like 50% of the world's razor blades, and so if they go down, every month is going to be No Shave November around the world. If they go down for an hour, it's tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars, right? And that's something I think before in manufacturing, you didn't have to think about; you could just kind of slap a Band-Aid on it and keep on going. Now, you just have to have those people that are really able to increase the efficiency, the reliability, minimize downtime, make downtime predictable and certain, and all those sort of things. That’s not even any longer a competitive advantage. That's part of your core business at this point.

PS: Totally agree, and you’re talking to the right people here about that because they’re living exactly what you talked about. Mayor Jacobs, thank you so much for being with us today. I appreciate your time today.

GJ: Thanks, Tom. I appreciate you. Thank you very much.

About the Author

Thomas Wilk | editor in chief

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University

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