GVSU Students Build
RealWorld Machinery

August 10, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Jeff Ray can't begin to hide the pride he has in his engineering students. Some manufacturing professionals in West Michigan are very impressed, too.

Ray is a professor and the director of the Grand Valley State University School of Engineering. Each year, senior engineering students at GVSU participate in the Capstone Design Program, in which they split into teams and spend their last two semesters solving real-world engineering design problems faced by area manufacturers.

Fifty-six seniors were part of the Capstone Design Program in 2006-2007; they designed and built 11 pieces of automated machinery for 10 West Michigan companies: ATEK Medical Manufacturing, Gill Industries, L3 Communications, Magnum Engineering, Mill Steel, Master Tag, N-K Manufacturing Technologies, Paulstra CRC Corp., Rapid-Line Inc. and Ventura Manufacturing Inc.

Companies that volunteer to work with the students only pay for the materials the students use in designing and building their machines. They also make a donation to GVSU but Ray said it is "minimal." This year the 10 companies involved spent more than $165,000 on materials for the students' use.

The students are not paid for their time spent on the projects. Ray estimates the hours spent on the projects this year would have had an industry value of more than $600,000. But it's still a very good deal for the students. To help further the students' education, the volunteer companies mentor them and give them real-world engineering assignments.

The participating companies "are bringing the real world into our facilities, and the education the students are getting is phenomenal. You cannot replicate that in the classroom," said Ray.

It can also be a good situation for those companies.

Armen S. Kassouni, who with his brother, Haig, owns N-K Manufacturing Technologies, said the GVSU Capstone Design Program is a good arrangement for the company because at the end of each project, "I've got this great, working machine." N-K and its 105 employees will make more than $15 million worth of plastic injection molded parts for the automotive, office furniture and appliance industries this year.

N-K had a GVSU student engineer team successfully solve a production problem for the company in 2003, so N-K volunteered to mentor another team in the 2006/2007 school year. And company officials had a tough problem for the team to work on: In the production of one of the firm's high-volume parts — about one million a year — employees were required to manually insert clips that had to be seated correctly or the part would be rejected. A manual process involving that many parts is bound to have quality problems due to human fatigue.

The GVSU student team designed and built an automated machine that incorporates new technology and does the job perfectly with zero product defects.

"This was not just a cut-and-paste project," said Kassouni, noting that the sophisticated technology that went into the automated process cost more than $20,000. The students "present a plan and a budget," as if they were an experienced machine-building company.

An N-K engineer said the new machine can run "lights-out," meaning constant operator attention is not required.

Nate Bassett, one of the six members of the GVSU student team, said the big challenge was the brevity of information the team got from N-K on how to proceed. They were shown the parts and the existing process for producing the parts, up to the point where the hand assembly was required.

Then, "we were told to find a way to automate the process," he said. Period.

The dauntless students spent the first semester of their senior year studying the problem and creating a process design that the company would approve. The second semester was spent building and perfecting it. Other members of the student team were Orin Cole, Paul Long, Derek Maxim, Steve Teerman and Ben VanderWall.

Kassouni noted that not only do the participating companies get effective automated machinery from the GVSU student teams, some of the machines they design and build are patentable — and the company will own the patent.

That was the case this year for Mill Steel, which will save from $600,000 to $900,000 in annual scrap costs with a new non-destructive inspection machine that can record a 3-D gauge profile of steel coils to determine if there will be quality issues with thickness variances in the steel. The device was designed and built by GVSU students Britt Adamczyk, Haley Nghiem, Eric Twiest and Nick Carlevaris-Bianco. On their graduation day, Aug. 3, the students learned that a patent on the machine was officially pending. The GVSU engineering students' graduation day is later in the year than the normal spring graduation because each senior must participate in a co-op experience that lasts a year.

Twiest noted happily that he and the other members on his Mill Steel team will each be named on the patent. "That's a nice thing to have on your résumé," he observed.

Twiest said the biggest challenge facing the student team at Mill Steel was "it had never been done. Nobody had any idea how to go about it."

Tom Stanfield of Mill Steel said the new device should be marketable to many other companies because it is something the whole industry needs. He said the manufacturing experts at Mill Steel are projecting cost savings of up to $900,000 per year, just in reduced scrap. Then the company expects to sell the rights to its innovative inspecting machine to other companies.

"By the time we are done, I expect it will be over a million dollars in savings," said Stanfield.

The students will get exactly the same treatment afforded to employees at any company who are instrumental in winning a patent: They get their name on it and $1. A patent is always owned by the company that paid to develop it. One may wonder why an employee named on a patent doesn't get a share of its value. The answer is that each employee is already being paid for work that includes the expectation of being innovative.

The students at Mill Steel had the same experience as innovative employees at any company who think they have come up with a brilliant idea.

"Our president, in the beginning, was very skeptical," noted Stanfield. "We had to prove the business case" for justifying an investment in the students' idea. "Which they did," he added.    

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