GREENVILLE — A Clemson University researcher who is creating the technology and educational programs that could give the United States an edge in the competitive world of advanced manufacturing is the new holder of an esteemed faculty position endowed by BMW, an anchor of the South Carolina economy.

Laine Mears, the new BMW SmartState Chair in Automotive Manufacturing, is an expert in how manufacturers can use sensors and the huge amounts of data they generate to better understand and streamline operations, helping save money and improve quality. He has more than 10 years’ automotive industry experience.

Laine Mears works on a car frame in his lab at CU-ICAR in Greenville.

Laine Mears works on a car frame in his lab at CU-ICAR in Greenville.

The research that he does has a direct impact on how cars and other products are manufactured in the Upstate and beyond. He said that a growing number of jobs require greater understanding of technology as manufacturing becomes more automated and reliant on data.

“The jobs that are created today are at a higher technical level, with commensurate pay,” he said. “In talking with companies in South Carolina, I find that they have the jobs. These jobs are already here. We just need education streams to push people to greater technical depth to fill them.”

A new program he is overseeing in Greenville brings together Clemson engineers and Greenville Technical College students to work together on a prototype assembly line. Mears and his team said that next-generation auto workers won’t need to be trained on new technology because they helped develop it.

Mears’ position as endowed chair was made possible by BMW Manufacturing Co. in Greer and the lottery-funded SmartState program.

Andreas Gücker, vice president for Quality and Total Vehicle at BMW Manufacturing, said that endowed chair positions help retain talent that might otherwise leave for other states.

“Dr. Mears is working on the cutting edge of advanced manufacturing, a critical piece of South Carolina’s economy,” Gücker said. “He is highly deserving of this endowed chair position. The work he is doing is creating the technologies and processes that will directly benefit industry, while educating the workforce of tomorrow.”

Clemson President James P. Clements said Mears’ academic experience and deep knowledge of the state’s manufacturing economy make him an ideal choice for this important role.

“Dr. Mears has distinguished himself as a leading researcher and an outstanding teacher whose students have excelled in academia and industry,” Clements said. “With his labs and office located in Greenville, he has demonstrated a strong commitment to advanced manufacturing in South Carolina that will serve our students and the state well in this new position.”

Mears has also applied his expertise in data-rich processing to study how to best join automotive component parts.

“The industry is enhancing the welding of mild steel bodies with new joining methods for more advanced materials that are lighter and stronger but more difficult to bring together into multifunctional body structures,” he said.

As an endowed chair, Mears holds one of the most distinguished positions on the Clemson faculty. He is based at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville.

“We are working on relevant problems in an industry that is changing faster than ever before in terms of design and architecture,” he said. “It is being pushed by efficiency needs to rethink design and manufacturing together. It gives our students an opportunity to achieve what was before the impossible, and that’s a very powerful tacit message for them. This chair will allow that to happen on a wider scale, with more relevant and impactful results.”

His newest project will be based at the Center for Manufacturing Innovation, which is adjacent to CU-ICAR. Cars will move to workers on a three-station assembly line that is expected to be launch by summer.

“The assembly line will foster innovation around processes found in a modern automotive manufacturing plant,” he said.

At a fourth station, robots, tools and other equipment will be brought to the car. It will allow researchers to explore new assembly ideas, Mears said.

The assembly areas will give Clemson engineers a chance to try new technologies and processes that make better use of sensors and do a better job of capturing motion than what is currently available, but without interrupting production. Meanwhile, Greenville Tech students will be learning how to use the machinery, prototyping processes and helping advise researchers on what works and what needs to be changed.

“We’re doing research in the same place that we’re doing workforce development,” Mears said. “This is a very different approach than what has been happening in the past. We think it’s a new education paradigm where workforce development is happening during the process of technology development.”

Robert Jones, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at Clemson, said that having a professor of Mears’ caliber serving as an endowed chair will help create highly sought-after employees, researchers and entrepreneurs.

“Dr. Mears is creating the next generation of leaders and innovators,” Jones said. “His focus on advanced manufacturing, particularly in the automotive and transportation industries, helps provide top talent to a strategically important sector of the state economy.”

Zoran Filipi, chair of the automotive engineering department, said the endowed chair is a well-deserved recognition for Mears.

“He is an exceptional teacher and internationally recognized researcher on the leading edge of efforts to transform manufacturing with sensing, analytics and assembly automation,” Filipi said. “Laine’s collaboration with BMW and other industry partners have helped put Clemson and South Carolina at the forefront of advanced manufacturing research.”

Congratulations also came from Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.

“Dr. Mears pursues excellence in all its facets,” Gramopadhye said. “He is richly deserving of his new role as endowed chair.  We in the college are here to support him to help make sure he has the greatest impact.”