January 07. 2013 9:00AM

Rapid Prototyping Center adds value for manufacturers

By Molly Dill

  
When Patrick McManigal wanted to start a fishing lure manufacturing company in Oconomowoc, he turned to the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) to help him build a prototype of his signature product.
Students and alumni visit at an event in the RPC. The stereolithography machines pictured use resin to create prototypes.

Glo Pro Lures has developed a buoyancy lure that allows a fisherman to cast on top of the water, or add water to a chamber to sink the lure to lower depths. To design a model of the product, McManigal worked with MSOE's Rapid Prototyping Center to reverse engineer an existing lure and plan a proprietary grommet plug for the water chamber.

Then, using a Computer Assisted Design drawing, the lab used one of its specialty machines to create a 3D prototype of the lure.

"It was something a little out of the ordinary that they typically don't do but they jumped right in and did a great job," McManigal said.

Students at MSOE are doing some of the most advanced product development work in the country for more than 60 area manufacturing companies like Glo Pro at the school's Rapid Prototyping Center.

The center operates as an independent entity, bringing in $1.2 million in annual revenue and helping to advance innovation through a consortium of customers.

"We really operate like a small business within the school, which helps us perform like a small business," said Vince Anewenter, manager of operations at the RPC. "We are the only academic lab (nationally) that is independently sustainable through industrial partnerships."

Some academic labs receive school, state and grant funding, but the Rapid Prototyping Center operates entirely on payments from manufacturing customers.

Each year, its 60 consortium members pay for a block of hours of engineering and prototype work at the RPC. The center's services are growing in popularity, and it added eight consortium members in 2012, he said.

The RPC provides support for MSOE student research and real world engineering experience, while assisting companies that can't justify investing in expensive, sensitive prototyping equipment.

Using a variety of processes, including selective laser sintering and stereolithography, the RPC's three full-time employees complete up to 5,000 manufacturing development projects per year.

The Rapid Prototyping Center can perform reverse engineering, prototyping and quality control, and create marketing models. Its machines create models using lasers applied to nylon, resin, powder and plaster.

Working with real projects from consortium members means solving new problems and meeting their criteria for a prototype. It pushes the students and employees at the RPC to get better, Anewenter said.

He tells students applying to the center: "This is the toughest job on campus, but it's also going to be the most rewarding."

The RPC model also benefits the companies who participate in the consortium.

The consortium does not include companies that compete with each other, so members can share confidential information with each other to solve development problems.

"We can feel free to share what we learned in one area to another area," Anewenter said.

Some of the technology used at the RPC is evolving to become a solution for the final manufactured product, so some have started to call the field "additive manufacturing," he said.

"We try to have every major additive process available to be a technology clearinghouse, if you will, for our consortium," Anewenter said.

Those technologies can cost up to $700,000 per new machine, and annual maintenance costs about 10 percent of the purchase price.

Some of the RPC's lasers can get to the thickness of a human hair in layering resin to create detailed models.

Glendale-based Johnson Controls Inc. joined the consortium this year to develop advanced energy storage concept, said MaryAnn Wright, vice president for technology and innovation in the power solutions business at Johnson Controls.

MSOE is developing CAD drawings and prototypes from Johnson Controls' designs, she said. Its speed was a major factor in using the RPC.

"With the prototyping lab, the capability that they have there is really top notch, not even in a university environment, but in a for-profit setting," Wright said. "Through the relationships that we have with MSOE, we had the line of sight that they had this capability and we were working on the physical demonstration of some concepts that we had and we knew that they could turn this around in literally days."

Capitol Stampings, a metal forming company in Milwaukee, also utilizes the Rapid Prototyping Center because of the speed and technology available.

By partnering with the RPC, Capitol is able to provide a value-added service to its customers, said company president Gary Wenzel.

"Without MSOE, we would not have this capability," he said. "We probably wouldn't go to the outside and have somebody on the outside do it for us."

Providing prototypes instead of merely CAD drawings sets Capitol apart and allows customers to plan further ahead.

"We're investing in the university, which is investing in the service, which one day one of them might come work for us," Wenzel said. "There's more value to belonging to their consortium than going to a private entity."

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