Pellissippi State aids small business with 3D printing prototype

Bill-Freshour

When Bill Freshour, an engineering lab tech at Pellissippi State Community College, spent much of his spring semester helping a small, young Etowah-based manufacturer develop a prototype laser scanner, he was just doing his job.

At least that’s what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics would say. According to the BLS, engineering lab technicians “work to resolve issues and solve problems in manufacturing…. To accomplish their goals they use science, engineering and math, and the theories that accompany them.”

So, yes, Freshour did what his job description said he would do. But to the staff of Advanced Measurement Systems Inc., he did a whole lot more.

“This prototype is a very innovative design using new technology,” said Robert Watts, the company’s CEO, “and Bill and Pellissippi State were key to us being a part of that type of trial.”

Freshour got involved in working with Advanced Measurement Systems as part of Pellissippi State’s involvement in the Advanced Manufacturing and Prototype Center of East Tennessee. Known simply as AMP!, the center is a public-private partnership intended to revitalize manufacturing and create jobs.

For small and start-up companies, AMP! partners provide resources for improvement and growth that the companies often wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. In the case of Advanced Measurement Systems, the competitive boost came from the technical expertise of Pellissippi State and the use of a 3D printer at Tech 20/20 in Oak Ridge.

Pellissippi State and Advanced Measurement Systems began working together after Tech 20/20 put out a call for businesses to take advantage of AMP! resources.

“This began as a student project for the AMP! Innovation Challenge, which pairs start-up small manufacturers in counties with high unemployment rates with STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] students,” said Mary Kocak. Kocak is a professor at Pellissippi State in the Engineering Technology degree program’s Mechanical Engineering concentration.

“The needs of AMS proved to be quite challenging,” she said, “so the project was taken on by Bill.”

Advanced Measurement Systems, a four-year-old McMinn County business that manufactures and sells cutting-edge laser electronic measuring systems to the collision repair industry, initially brought to the table the design for a prototype scanner that would allow greater accuracy in vehicle repair.

When a car’s frame is damaged, collision repair companies may use machines to reshape the frame and fix the vehicle. This type of repair was once measured by hand and then by individual laser measurements, but the new prototype allows continuous, dynamic measurements of a vehicle’s frame.

“This prototype is quite different than the scanner we are currently using,” said Watts. “For one, it’s significantly smaller, which prevents targets getting blocked and increases the accuracy of the measurements from the scanner to each target. It’s completely wireless, and it also uses only one laser beam, rather than two.”

The new prototype employs a green laser. Unlike a flashlight beam, which grows wider the farther it travels, a green laser retains its small diameter over a greater distance.

“That integrity over distance will allow us to measure larger vehicles, like motor homes and tractor trailers—which we currently can’t do—because the measurements are more accurate,” Watts said.

Every improvement to the laser scanner gives the business a competitive advantage in the collision repair industry.

Freshour took the company’s conceptual ideas and initial design for the prototype and created 16 separate 3D renderings of each piece needed to construct the revolving, turret-shaped laser. Those drawings were then sent to Tech 20/20 and manufactured using the company’s 3D printer.

AMS and Pellissippi State are now working together to modify design of the prototype further to allow it to be 3D printed in fewer pieces.

“If it can be made in one piece, as we think it can be,” said Watts, “that will save a lot of money in production and assembly. But it requires very precise design and manufacturing accuracy to be printed in one piece—no angle could be incorrect.”

If the one-piece design works as intended, no calibration of the laser will be needed, making the scanner even more accurate and reliable.

“Everything the college, Tech 20/20 and AMP! have done in collaboration with us has been invaluable in completing this project in a timely manner,” Watts said.

Advanced Measurement Systems hopes to show off the finished scanner at an October trade show. Using 3D printers, companies can create prototypes quickly, with less waste and cost than using traditional methods. The AMS prototype is still undergoing revisions, but in its current design, it could only be manufactured by a 3D printer.

“This is what the Mechanical Engineering/Engineering Technology team at Pellissippi State does,” said Freshour. “We work with industry on design problems, and help them to work things out. Local industry hires our students, so working with them also creates opportunities for our graduates.”

As Kocak points out, no single partner in the equation—neither Pellissippi State nor Advancement Measurement Systems nor Tech 20/20—could have brought the laser scanner project to fruition. And therein lies the benefit of the AMP! and other community partnerships in which the college participates.

AMP! was funded initially in 2012 by a federal grant. Under the helm of lead grant applicant Tech 20/20, Pellissippi State works together with collaborative partners Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Services.

Thanks to the AMP! grant, the college also has created a certificate program in Additive Manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, and provides more than $250,000 in scholarships for 125-plus students in Advanced Manufacturing courses.

For more information about Pellissippi State and its programs, visit www.pstcc.edu or call (865) 694-6400.