David Clayton has a front row seat to the rise in electric vehicle manufacturing in South Carolina.
The Greenville native, who has lived in the Upstate nearly his entire life, is executive director of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research, and an expert in the advanced manufacturing and mobility industries.
With more than 20 years’ experience in higher education, industry and public service, Clayton has helped create high-wage opportunities for scores of students while keeping technological advancement at the forefront.
That includes the Deep Orange rapid vehicle prototype program within Clemson University’s two-year master’s degree focused on systems integration in automotive engineering.
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It’s all being done at the center, which is a 250-acre advanced-technology research campus founded in 2007 where university, industry and government organizations collaborate.
“What excites me the most about what I do is helping contribute to positive economic development in an area that is close to my heart,” said Clayton, who is also assistant vice president, corporate partnerships and strategic Initiatives at CU-ICAR. “The day-to-day personal satisfaction in helping create learning opportunities for our students, as students come first, and Deep Orange is a perfect example of giving them an experience unlike any other.”
Clemson students have the opportunity to work with prestigious corporate partners in the automotive industry and learn from them, Clayton added.
“Going from just an idea to a prototype from their own imagination, solving some of the world’s biggest challenges with world-changing technologies and advancements that the auto industry is tackling and to help our students prepare for that is very rewarding,” he said. “This is a great time to be a part of this industry.”
Take a deep dive into Deep Orange automotive enginering initiative
Deep Orange is a flagship rapid vehicle prototype program within Clemson University’s two-year master’s degree focused on systems integration in automotive engineering. The program provides students with experience in market analysis, target customer profiles, vehicle design, prototyping and manufacturing while balancing costs and design targets in an aggressive timeline.
The innovative vehicle prototype program encourages students to push the boundaries of conventional design and engineering.
CU-ICAR represented the Palmetto State at the 2023 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), widely regarded as the world’s largest electronics showcase in Las Vegas in January. This year marks the first time a team from Clemson University received worldwide exposure on the global stage at CES.
While in Las Vegas, 23 Clemson students, faculty and staff debuted a prototype born out of Deep Orange to worldwide industry leaders: Deep Orange 11.
Engineered from scratch by Clemson students, the sustainable-by-design prototype demonstrated circular economy concepts from the vehicle’s creation to its disposal, including novel uses for sustainable and advanced materials, improved recyclability and low-impact operation.
During the Deep Orange program’s entirety, students combined market data with guidance from world-renowned researchers, skilled staff and global leaders such as ExxonMobil Chemical and Honda to build and validate their design. Throughout the project, industry partners mentored students on engineering practices and subject matter related to developing and integrating technology innovations throughout the education experience.
Chris Paredis, BMW chair in Systems Integration, also served as the program director for the Deep Orange 11 project.
“Students had the opportunity to work closely with industry partners,” said Paredis. “The beauty was partners bring a lot of expertise, and they reached out to other businesses where several other companies provided additional materials as well as providing engineering expertise. We were positioned really well at CES and gained a lot of interest. Students were really excited, and we are proud of their work.”
Paredis, who was involved in the project from start to finish and got to know students personally, said in the end, it’s all about the students and not just about the vehicle product, ensuring they learn and are prepared to apply those skills and knowledge upon graduation.
“To see all the students at the end of the project employed at great companies is very rewarding,” he added. “All at the cutting edge of the auto industry. All of them commented on their experience and how it translated to what they do in the workplace currently, so as an educator, that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”
Being a systems engineer in the automotive industry demands a holistic view of the project you are working on, said Paredis.
“The experience, maturity and ‘beyond the classroom’ skills and knowledge that we learned through the Deep Orange process still is helping to this day,” said Piyush Girade, a battery systems engineer at Nikola Corp. in California, who received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Clemson and worked on the Deep Orange project. “I believe the Deep Orange program gave us, the new entrants to the automotive industry, a huge head start in our professional careers.”
South Carolina's auto industry is revving up
It’s no secret that the automotive manufacturing industry is booming in South Carolina — with major contributions from this Upstate university’s research and technological advancements.
CU-ICAR offers master’s and doctorate programs in automotive engineering and is conducting leading-edge applied research in critical areas such as advanced product-development strategies, sustainable mobility, intelligent manufacturing systems and advanced materials. CU-ICAR has industrial-scale laboratories and testing equipment in world-class facilities.
On the research front, said Clayton, the U.S. Department of Defense project (Deep Orange 15) has begun, which entails modernizing autonomous (self-driving) military ground vehicles, and hybrid power train tanks and vehicles, which are being built for the U.S. Army.
“We envisioned for this campus to be the public-private partnership it is, and 15 years later we continue that work, so these vehicles can see the light of day,” he said. “People come here and realize what they have access to in the state as a whole, and it’s really a differentiator. To lead the mobility industry is a main part of our mission.”
Another new addition to the campus is the construction of a new industrial Flex Lab for corporate tenants to conduct research and development, engineering, which should be ready for occupancy this spring.
CU-ICAR was the first graduate-level automotive engineering program in the country. It has been recognized for the first Ph.D. graduate in Automotive Engineering, as well as the first female Ph.D. graduate of Automotive Engineering in the U.S., and now offers one of the first automotive engineering undergraduate degrees in the country.
The center is also working on electric vehicles, infrastructure, and battery management to quickly power vehicles, and that kind of research happens at CU-ICAR every day, said Clayton.
“We are always looking for new partners to come grow with us,” said Clayton. “ICAR is an advantage to the community, to help grow the economy and region by drawing international partners to the area. We want the community to come see what we are doing and the amazing things happening here.”
Pivotal in founding Greenville Technical College’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI), Clayton brought on corporate partners to fortify the program including GE, KUKA Robotics and Hass Automation, among others. As CMI’s first executive director, he furnished it with state-of-the-art equipment, developed the curriculum for the state’s first four-year degree from a technical college and built educational collaboration programs between Clemson and the college.
Clayton works closely with industry partners such as Samsung, Bosch and Ford to establish and execute cooperative research projects and academic engagement initiatives.
At nearly 100% occupancy, there are 20 companies at the campus as part of public-private partnerships with only around 250 people at the campus that are faculty, staff, and students for Clemson, said Clayton. For example, the North American headquarters for JTEKT is housed at the campus, BMW also has an information technology center there for IT and research development, TTI Group, and Sage Automotive Interiors’ world headquarters.
“The program continues to grow and thrive,” said Clayton. “Students go onto BMW, Bosch, Tesla, and we also started the auto engineering and professional certificates to help undergrads continue their journey into the auto industry.”