'Problem solvers for industry': Advanced Manufacturing Institute provides technical resources for Kansas companies
By Michelle Hall
Manufacturing employs 15 percent of the workforce of Kansas. Its contribution to the gross domestic product is more than any other industry in Kansas and it contributes the most of any industry to economic growth.
However, 82 percent of the manufacturing companies in Kansas have 50 employees or less. They are typically focused on their daily production needs and don't have time for research and development that can fuel long-term growth.
That's where the Advanced Manufacturing Institute at Kansas State University steps in.
The Advanced Manufacturing Institute is a Kansas Technology Enterprise Corporation Center of Excellence. The corporation was formed in the '80s amid statewide concern for the slumping Kansas economy. Kansas leaders, university representatives and individuals from the private sector decided it was time to invest in the future of Kansas and work to create a technology-based economy, said Brad Kramer, director of the Advanced Manufacturing Institute. Some of the funds set aside for this purpose go to the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corporation, which in turn, funds five centers of excellence around the state, including K-State's Advanced Manufacturing Institute. The institute also houses a regional office for Mid-America Manufacturing Technology Center, which also provides assistance to manufacturing companies in the region -- the institute and center share resources to help out the greatest number of Kansas manufacturing companies.
The institute aids Kansas companies with new product and custom equipment development, engineering analysis and testing, and product design and prototyping. The institute also funds faculty research across campus, on the topics of manufacturing process and systems, advanced material processing, and sensing, measurement and control in mechatronic systems.
Getting their hands dirty
Part of the Advanced Manufacturing Institute is the Manufacturing Learning Center.
"This creates an experience for engineers like a teaching hospital is for doctors," Kramer said. The center includes nine industrially experienced engineers and also employs about 35 students. These engineers and budding engineers work on projects for industry.
"We help Kansas companies and K-State students," Kramer said. The students the institute employs have a 100 percent post-graduation employment rate. The students do much of the work, with the engineers supervising.
Companies come to the Advanced Manufacturing Institute with prototypes they want built, they come to have the institute's engineers redesign a product no longer on the market, they come to find contractors for different parts of a job; sometimes they just come to use the institute's lifting, measuring, prototyping, fabricating, cutting, welding or bending equipment -- which many of them do not have.
"A lot of people come to us because they don't have engineers in house," said Jeff Tucker, operations manager and associate director of the Advanced Manufacturing Institute. He said most of their clients are small- to medium-sized Kansas companies that don't have access to the equipment or the personnel that larger companies would. Very few have time to develop new products.
"We allow them to tap into resources when they need them," Tucker said. "We help them become more competitive."
Looking to the future
In addition to the training, seminars, research and development the institute provides to industry, they also are training the future workforce of Kansas -- the students.
"We're helping companies to be successful now and in the future," Tucker said.
In that spirit, Kramer said they'd like to do more to help provide future workers for small Kansas companies. He said they'd like companies to identify students from their area who are interested in majoring in engineering and give the Advanced Manufacturing Institute projects and sponsor the student to help with those projects. Then, when the student graduates, they can go back to that community and that company. Kramer likens this to rural communities sponsoring a resident through medical school with the understanding the student will return to provide medical care to that community.
"We would like to get higher-skilled people out to the rural communities," Kramer said.
Tucker said the institute is constantly letting the people and companies of Kansas know about their services. They frequent trade shows, make presentations to chambers of commerce around the state, host an annual conference, and send out many publications and newsletters.
"We go out and visit and listen to the needs and concerns," Tucker said. "We have no 'canned responses'; we really listen to the company's needs. Whatever they need, we find it for them. Anything technical in nature -- we can be that resource, or we can be a conduit to it."
Staying in touch
The Advanced Manufacturing Institute stays in touch with the needs of the state through their Industry Advisory Board, which helps them to "keep the pulse on the main issues," Tucker said.
Mike Bergmeier has been on the advisory board for about two years. He is the president of Shield Ag, a small Hutchinson, Kan., company that manufactures agricultural tillage and Acra-Plant No-Till replacement parts for original equipment manufacturers and for aftermarket parts retailers. Bergmeier said he is a firm believer in the mission of the institute.
"Small companies and start-ups cannot always afford quality engineering staffs and manufacturing departments," he said. "AMI bridges the gap for these companies while educating and showing students that good manufacturing jobs are available in our state." Bergmeier said the institute has assisted his company with design and streamlining the process of starting up new software. He said he feels serving on the board has been important, because, as a Kansan, he has seen too many talented people leave the state in search of economic and career opportunities.
"AMI's charter includes correcting 'brain drain' on a long-term basis," he said.
Joe Farrar, president of Farrar Corporation, of Norwich and Manhattan, said he is a part of the advisory board because he felt he could help contribute to the growth and stability of the institute and the Manufacturing Learning Center so that other companies in Kansas could benefit from their services in the future.
"I think AMI is a critical resource for the small- to medium-sized manufacturing company in the state of Kansas," he said. "In addition to providing technical services to a company that cannot afford to hire an expensive consultant or to have a full-time person on staff for technical research, product design, product testing, or process improvement, they also give engineering students a hands-on experience working on real problems while they are still in school."
Farrar has served on the advisory board for four to five years, he said. His company makes ductile iron castings and machined parts for original equipment manufacturers in about 20 different states. Farrar's grandfather started the company in 1933 as a blacksmith shop. They now make about 1,700 different parts for about 130 different customers, with a staff of 11 in Manhattan, and about 100 in the foundry in Norwich. The Advanced Manufacturing Institute has helped them with designing and building machining fixtures, rapid prototyping of patterns, quality system audits and plant layout.
Another way of keeping in touch with companies is through the institute's new Executive Engineering Ambassador's Program. Through this program, K-State graduates who are engineering/manufacturing executives or have recently retired, and want to give back to the university, help their companies build relationships with the institute, finding ways to work together.
"We're constantly trying to find different ways to promote ourselves and see the needs of Kansas manufacturers," Tucker said. "The concept of our Manufacturing Learning Center was developed by talking to manufacturers."
"It's all positive," Kramer said. "We're helping to build the economy of Kansas."
Photos: (Left) Amanda Day and Matthew Jundt, both mechanical engineering majors, work at the Amada Vipros 357 at the Manufacturing Learning Center. The Vipros 357 is a high speed, hydraulic turret punch press. This machine was recently donated to AMI, in addition to training at their technical training facility.
(Right) Brandon Hanschu, industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, works at the Flow International CNC Waterjet Cutting Center at the Manufacturing Learning Center.
Images courtesy Lea Studer.