Monday, May 9, 2011
Talking above the roar of machinery on the Whirltronics factory floor, toolmakers Jamey Olson and Al Roepke discuss improving the die for a lawnmower blade.
Trading ideas with them are St. Cloud State mechanical engineering students Adam Moser, Albany, Jared Johnson, Eagan, and Jesse Lanie, Ihlen.
Andrew Bekkala, professor of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, stands several feet away with a smile on his face.
"I'm not a toolmaker. These guys are the toolmakers," shouts Bekkala, pointing at Olson and Roepke. "They're translating knowledge directly to the students, who are learning stuff I can't teach them — what works and what doesn't work."
Arrayed across the 45,000-square-foot factory in Buffalo, Minn., are stations dedicated to manufacturing more than a million blades a year for about a dozen lawnmower manufacturers.
Near the southwest corner of the factory, students John Feia, St. Cloud, and Grant Helgeson, St. Michael, have their tape measures out and their logbooks at hand. They're documenting the dimensions of two units that comprise a blade-straightening station. Their goal: Design modifications that would automate the station.
Back at St. Cloud State, Feia and Helgeson will develop computer-based and solid models to demonstrate their design improvements to Whirltronics staff. They'll make presentations and complete a technical report for their Engineering Design Project II class.
Feia and Helgeson contend their improvements could reduce the station's staff requirement from two workers to one — a key efficiency for a manufacturer competing with companies in emerging economies such as China and Brazil.
Jennifer (Thomsen) Lindquist '94, manufacturing engineering manager, said Whirltronics constantly seeks labor efficiencies, yet strives to maintain its workforce numbers through sales growth.
Innovation, including designs developed by St. Cloud State students, is critical to Whirltronics' success, according to Steve Thul, president.
St. Cloud State has partnered with Whirltronics for 15 years on joint projects, research and equipment construction, said Bekkala.
"The workforce here knows our mission in relationship to St. Cloud State. We're quite encouraged and optimistic about the results," said Thul. "We've seen some real, tangible results."