In an era of outsourcing, one university says it’s seeing a return of some manufacturers who had previously moved manufacturing plants overseas because they want to take advantage of higher quality processes and expertise than what they can find overseas. This is especially the case in the use of high-level information technology and robotics in the manufacturing process.
Wichita State University (WSU) began planning its Center of Innovation and Enterprise Engagement three and a half years ago to assist firms gain access to research facilities and laboratories to bring improved products and processes to market.
The University’s aeronautical engineering department has a long research history with aircraft manufacturers in Wichita – dubbed the Air Capital City. A Workforce Innovation Regional Economic Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor funded the center which aims to show smaller area manufacturers how to transform their manufacturing process from legacy materials, such as aluminum for aircraft, to a variety of composites.
Composites are not new to the aviation industry; one of the first uses of composites in aircraft manufacturing dates to the 1980s with Beech Aircraft’s Starship 1. While the aircraft was not commercially successful, it showed the industry how lighter and stronger composites were an advance over traditional aviation materials.
Small and medium-size manufacturers often lack the research and development departments of the larger companies, said WSU Engineering Dean Zulma Toro-Ramos. These companies are part of the supply chain that the larger manufacturers rely on for parts and sub-assemblies.
“They come to us with a problem or with a goal of finding out if they can move toward these additional products from composites,” Toro-Ramos says. “Some of them do not have any idea as to what the requirements are to add composites to their product mix.”
The Nanocomposites and Biocomposites Laboratory, one of 12 research sectors in the aeronautical engineering department, employs 13 graduate students and one undergrad and works with such companies as Spirit AeroSystems, Hawker Beechcraft, Bombardier-Learjet, Boeing and Cessna, as well as NASA, the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Department of Energy and the state of Kansas.
Debra Franklin, who operates the center, says it takes a customized approach in working with firms and how each would like to integrate aramid, carbon and fiberglass into their products. “We are also experimenting with new composite materials,” Toro-Ramos said. “Depending upon the needs of some sectors that we have identified, we are trying to come up with new composite materials for different industries.”