Skip to main content

Greenville Business Magazine

Clemson University Center for Advanced Manufacturing Director Mark Johnson gets off to a speedy start

Mar 04, 2019 11:37AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By John Jeter
Photo by Amy Randall

Mark Johnson is larger than life. In a sense, so’s his new job. He’s a strapping Minnesotan at 6-foot-9. He’s also the inaugural director of the Clemson University Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CAM), a big job in a diverse organization charged with preparing students for a world that is being constantly reinvented.

“Something like half the products we buy didn’t even exist technologically 10 years ago,” he says. “The ability to get technology into the marketplace helps drive the economic growth that supports who we are.”

How? By connecting students at one of the nation’s top 25 public universities—according to U.S. News & World Report last September—and its leading research center to advanced manufacturing and the global supply chain already here.

Before Johnson joined Clemson, he was the director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s advanced manufacturing office, overseeing a $250 million annual budget and 45 federal employees. There, Bill Bonvillian, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Office of Digital Learning, watched Johnson “do a lot of creative things in a short period of time.”

While Bonvillian says MIT has nothing comparable to Clemson’s advanced manufacturing initiative, he can’t say enough about Johnson. 

“He’s a talented thought leader, as well as a leading technologist, in this whole new field of advanced manufacturing.”

When Johnson arrived in Greenville, he hit the ground running.

By October, the CAM director was already a one-man human supply chain linking people and the stuff people manufacture: he gathered executives from BMW, Michelin, Siemens, Bosch, and Samsung.

At a panel in Greenville, Knudt Flor, president and CEO of BMW Manufacturing Co., was quoted as saying, “If you want to implement the highest level of innovation, then you need to have the best people.”

Bonvillian says Clemson got one in Johnson: “My view is, he’s the right person in the right place. He’s a remarkable talent, he’s a first-rate technologist, and he’s an all-around great guy.”

Johnson’s a long way from Stillwater, Minn., a town on the St. Croix River, about 20 minutes from St. Paul. His father worked at the coal-fired Allen S. King Power Plant.

“By the time I was in fourth grade, I knew how three-phase power worked just by listening at the dinner table every night,” he says.

He had no doubt he would become an engineer.

Johnson played basketball for those fightin’ Beavers—“nature’s engineers,” he notes—during his undergraduate days at MIT. Right out of college, he worked for Raytheon. He earned his Ph.D. at N.C. State University, where he later served as associate professor of materials science and engineering. He also worked at a semiconductor startup in the Research Triangle.

During an interview in one of the gleaming, cavernous buildings of the CU-ICAR campus, he talks with no small excitement about his role. 

“For South Carolina to compete on a global basis, it has to have the infrastructure, like this, to be competitive on a global basis,” he says.

Asked why a man with such a large and varied curriculum vitae wouldn’t instead choose, say, Silicon Valley or return to the Research Triangle or to MIT, Johnson says, “I’m 56 years old, and I like being connected with students.” 

Johnson’s other title, also outsized, is the Thomas F. Hash ‘69 SmartState Endowed Chair in Sustainable Development. Financing for research related to advanced manufacturing is as high as $10 million, a Clemson spokesman says, and Johnson sees the potential to at least double that.

The university launched CAM in June as an umbrella for six centers: the Clemson Composites Center, Clemson Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Center, Product Life Cycle Management, Clemson University Center for Workforce Development, Center for Automotive Aviation and Virtual E-Schools, and Clemson University Vehicle Assembly Center.

Johnson, along with 44 faculty members whose brainpower he’s charged with connecting to advanced manufacturers, is already preparing the centers’ students for 2025 and beyond.  

“The world is going to change through their entire career here, so they’re leaders in 2050,” he says. “We’re working ahead to see what knowledge, what capabilities do we need to make sure our students are prepared. Especially in advanced manufacturing, are we where we are continuing to move technology?”

Nearly eight months after he and his wife, Jennie LaMonte, moved from Washington, D.C. to Greenville, Johnson sounds as big as his affable smile, which is nearly as big as he is.

“I’m incredibly optimistic about this entire generation,” he says. “They think that we screwed everything up and they’re here to fix it.”