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Wednesday, 30 May 2012 08:58

WMU researchers spearhead new tech in manufacturing

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WMU researchers spearhead new tech in manufacturing Courtesy photo
KALAMAZOO — The commercialization of a new manufacturing innovation resulting from years of research at Western Michigan University has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for companies across the globe. 

Dr. John Patten, director of the WMU Manufacturing Research Center, and Dr. Deepak Ravindra, a senior research associate, are the developers behind a new Micro-LAM (Laser Assisted Machining) process, which uses high pressure generated by diamond cutting tools with an intense and focused laser to cut hard, brittle objects such as glass, ceramics, semiconductors and other materials.

The process has the potential to reduce the time required to machine difficult-to-engineere components and cut operations costs for manufacturers significantly. Based on estimates from one potential customer, one machine could drop operational costs by $450,000 to $500,000 a year, the founders said.

With financial support from National Science Foundation and numerous other sources, Patten and Ravindra created a spin-off company, Micro-Laser Assisted Machining Technologies LLC, and are participating in the NSF funded I-Corps Program at Stanford University. The three-month start-up boot camp includes direction from Silicon Valley venture capitalists and two business development sessions at Stanford. In July, the new company will move into the Battle Creek Unlimited incubator to continue the business development process.

Patten began developing the concept for the technology in 1995, with related work starting in 1985. Patten filed a patent through WMU in 2005 after he envisioned an engineering application for the technology.

"It has been painstaking. Typically, we teach courses and educate, research and publish papers," Patten said. "We don't spin-off companies and sell products. The result of our research is usually a patent."

Patten said WMU doesn't have a long history of developing new technologies for commercialization. The project puts the university in fairly new territory, he said.

For this particular project, WMU — which also supported the project's development through its Technology Development Fund program — owns the intellectual property. WMU will license the technology to the company. The payback, Patten said, is when the product has some revenue.

"Realistically, we're probably about two to two and half years away from hanging an actual price tag on the product," Patten said. "There will be many alphas and betas in between."

Those close to the project believe the new technology has the potential to dramatically impact microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), particularly in the electronics and optics industries.

Behind the scenes, Patten and Ravindra have a number of national and international business partners interested in pushing the technology forward. Pennsylvania-based II-VI Infrared, Ohio Gravure Technologies, Sumitomo in Japan, Daetwyler SwissTec, Adamant Kogyo Co. and Fraunhofer-Gesselshaft in Germany are among the companies involved already.

Ravindra said he is going to Japan early next year to work with Sumitomo. He said he plans to meet with 100 potential customers by the end of the month.

When MiBiz spoke with the researchers, they had done their first industrial-grade testing. Ravindra, who came to WMU as an undergrad in the mechanical engineering program, learned about Dr. Patten's work as a senior. During his graduate program, he became very interested in the work and later pursued it through his Ph.D. research.

"Probably about two years ago, we had a discussion about taking his technology research for his Ph.D. and doing something with it," Patten said. "About a year ago, we had a more serious conversation, so I ran with it and carried the ball forward until he graduated in January."
After Ravindra graduated, he and Patten set out to optimize the technology.

"The challenge was to try to make a system or lab bench unit that could be similar to something that is used in the industry," Ravindra said. "The first year was mainly trying to source available commercial equipment to do assembly in-house."

Depending on the day, Ravindra said he could be spending all night in the lab setting up equipment and doing testing. Other days, there could be a report deadline or grant proposal that needs to be written.

"We're trying to engage one or two potential customers every day to try and get the product known, see demand and try to capture the value," he said. "We've been doing a lot of customer discovering, trying to address their needs and challenges."

Patten said while the technology could certainly benefit the electronics and optics industries, he sees opportunities in assisting the machining of composite materials and products such as wind turbine blades.

"We will probably find more opportunities for this technology," he said. "Right now, it's represented as single product, but what you really want to do is make it a platform for complementary technology."

Patten cited Google as an example of a platform technology.

"That's what our goal would be: work from a single product and make platform," he said. "Once you go from a product to a platform, then the game changes."

Patten said while he and Ravindra have talked about developing complementary manufacturing and machining technology that would support the current project, they aren't ready to discuss anything just yet.

"Apple wouldn't tell you about their next product until it's out yet," he said.

For now, Patten said the two things they are focused on are faster speed and higher quality of machining. The big item is finding what the new process will enable users to do that they can't do now.

"We certainly know where to go looking," he said.

Read 3212 times Last modified on Thursday, 02 August 2012 16:23
Elijah Brumback

Staff Writer

ebrumback@mibiz.com

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