The morning newspapers are just showing
up on doorsteps when Peter Bosse walks into the University of Maine
Advanced Manufacturing Center (AMC) in Orono. He greets the custodian,
chats with Brian Barker, AMC engineer/machinist, and then gets to work
on his latest project, programming software that controls an automated
For Bosse, a UMaine engineering graduate student from Frenchville,
Maine, AMC provides an opportunity to participate in the creation of a
new enterprise, a process that is at the root of economic development.
While his own research focuses on fuel cell technology for the U.S.
Navy, he has helped to buy equipment, hire personnel and start a program
that serves as an innovation resource for Maine manufacturers and
The result of more than 90 meetings between UMaine and Maine
manufacturing companies, AMC is at the dawn of its own growth. "In 2000
and 2001, we traveled the state and asked companies how the university
could help them. Their answer was a one-stop shop from concept to
something that can be manufactured," says Scott Dunning, AMC executive
director. "We are not here to compete with the private sector. We are a
unique niche resource for the state, a rapid-response center for new
Machine shops "can't make money making one of anything," adds Steve
Adam, UMaine engineering advancement officer. "And when clients come to
us with a request that we make multiples of the same product, we hand
them a list of shops that do that work."
Financial support for AMC has come from UMaine's College of Engineering
and the Department for Industrial Cooperation, the Maine Economic
Improvement Fund, and a June 2003 public bond referendum. The advisory
board includes representatives of wood, metal and plastics products
Graduate student Peter Bosse in an Advanced Manufacturing
The cutting process for an
electric bike motor cooling fin.
Photo courtesy of
The Advanced Manufacturing Center
Dunning serves on the board of the
Maine Metal Products Association and during the 1990s, managed UMaine's
Industrial Assessment Center, a federally funded program to increase
energy efficiency in small and medium-sized manufacturing companies. He
and Tom Christensen, associate professor of bioresource engineering and
AMC operations manager, knew that manufacturers could benefit from
research support, but when AMC opened its doors in January 2003, they
were in for a surprise. The new venture was overwhelmed with demand for
its services. A fledgling staff of eight students led day to day by
Christensen, Barker and Bosse scrambled to keep up.
AMC undertook design challenges from companies such as Fisher
Engineering in Rockland, Shape Global Technology in Sanford and Hilltop
Log Homes in Bowdoinham. It also began to serve research labs on the
Orono campus and at UMaine's Darling Marine Center in Walpole.
For the time being, AMC shares crowded quarters with the Mitchell Center
for Environmental and Watershed Research in Norman Smith Hall. Lack of
space, says Christensen, means little capacity to accept new projects.
That will change next fall. Across campus, construction has begun on a
new 30,000-square-foot building that will enable AMC to triple its
student workforce and add machinery.
While looking forward to the future, Christensen points with pride to
the existing critical mass of industrial-grade metal machining
equipment, computers running design software and systems devoted to the
rapid development of prototypes. For a manufacturer, says Christensen,
that means fast product development at a relatively low cost.
As an example, he points to a project for ShapeGlobal, manufacturer of
molded plastic components. In collaboration with Spirometrics of Gray,
Maine, the company recently needed to come up with a new part for a
breathing apparatus for people with asthma.
The typical development process would mean making a metal die and using
it to create parts for testing purposes. As changes are made, new dies
have to follow. At $10,000 per die, the process quickly gets expensive.
At AMC, test parts can be made for as little as $150 on a rapid
prototyping machine, one of two in the state. The device uses fused
deposition technology to create intricate products out of ABS plastic,
some with moving parts. It allows design engineers to refine
specifications before investing in production machinery.
The benefits of such a service are clear to Dean of Engineering Larryl
Matthews. "In order for manufacturers to engage in innovation, they have
to divert part of their resources away from production. That raises
barriers to their ability to enter new markets. AMC is all about
lowering those barriers and enabling manufacturers to solve problems and
become more competitive," says Matthews.
In addition to established companies, individual inventors and
entrepreneurs have brought new product ideas to AMC, some literally on
the back of a napkin. That's the first step, says Bosse, in creating a
new product. "People don't realize how much work goes into a new
product. They have to go through proof of concept, testing and making
changes. They need to consider marketing."
Projects conducted at AMC during the past year range from devices for
controlling traffic and stacking boards to ball bearings for a rock
crusher and precision laboratory hardware for research. In addition to
working with the private sector, AMC has taken on machine shop duties
for the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center and the Climate
Change Institute on the UMaine campus.
Students involved in these projects receive more than a paycheck, says
Dunning. "We want to graduate students who have an entrepreneurial
vision. They may start by fabricating parts under supervision, but by
the time they're seniors, they may be running projects on their own.
Plus, they'll have experience on industrial-grade equipment. They'll
have practical experience with project management, teamwork and
business, in addition to technical skills."
Bosse expects to receive his master's degree in biological engineering
in 2004, and then will consider his employment options. Knowing how
difficult it can be to start a new company, he has his eye on the
developing fuel cell industry.
It can be tough to know whose technology and which company will succeed,
he adds, but working closely with manufacturers through AMC will help
him learn to ask the right questions.
by Nick Houtman
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.