Engineers at the Naval Air Depot at Cherry Point are constantly under the gun to get military helicopters and transport planes off the ground when the aircraft hit the base for repairs. They don’t have time to study why breakdowns occur or how to prevent them. But a new partnership between NC State and Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), which oversees Cherry Point, will provide engineers with the research support they need while serving as a potential magnet to attract military and commercial aviation suppliers to North Carolina.

The Institute for Maintenance Science and Technology (IMST) grew out of a two-year working relationship in which College of Engineering faculty and graduate students quickly addressed technical problems for Cherry Point like predicting the fatigue life on rotors and other components. “The military can’t achieve its objective of rapid and extended deployment when combat aircraft are grounded awaiting critical replacement parts,” says Dr. Jerry Cuomo, IMST co-director and distinguished university research professor in materials science and engineering.

IMST’s goal is to nurture the creation of aerospace firms in North Carolina to become future suppliers of these often obsolete parts to the military. The Global TransPark in Kinston will serve as a hub for much of the research. The College of Engineering recently received a $5.4 million grant to support its research from Golden LEAF, the foundation that funds economic development projects statewide with proceeds from the national tobacco litigation settlement.

Because of the unpredictability of part failure on older aircraft, “agile manufacturing” technologies—ways for suppliers to quickly and profitably produce small quantities of parts—are needed. “These have to be real-time solutions,” says IMST co-director Dr. Roger Sanwald, senior researcher in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “They aren’t your typical university research projects, although they could lead to new research for our students.”

Last year, the University signed a $1 million contract to fulfill such task orders for NAVAIR through 2009. Chris Holder, acting head of research and engineering at Cherry Point, says this fills a gap in his base’s maintenance framework. The Defense Department doesn’t have the funding to conduct such research on its aging fleet of aircraft, and major military contractors have other priorities, Holder says. “IMST provides a broad approach to technology issues that could help any military base,” he says.

NC State wants to expand the IMST platform not only to other military installations—talks already have taken place with Fort Bragg and the Coast Guard station in Elizabeth City—but to civilian industries ranging from automotive parts to nuclear power plants. As ISMT co-director Dr. John Strenkowski, assistant dean for research in the College of Engineering, says, “The IMST’s advanced manufacturing techniques will create skilled jobs in the state that aren’t easily lost to foreign competition.”