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January / February 2004


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Advancing Manufacturing


Advancing Manufacturing

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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 saw.

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 research laboratories.

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 product development."

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 manufacturers statewide.

Peter Bosse
Graduate student Peter Bosse in an Advanced Manufacturing Center lab.
 

Cutting Process
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
January-February, 2004

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.

 

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