Story & Photo's By: Larry Kline
Page Design By: Stacy Mantle
Greg Kegel touches a series of buttons on the machine's control panel, selecting the correct program. He steps back and folds his arms, and the mammoth machine goes to work. Its bit spinning at 12,000 rpm, the machine can cut 60 linear inches a minute. Guided back and forth by its program, the large gantry router cuts away at a wooden post, easy work for a piece of equipment made to cut a granite countertop with pinpoint accuracy.
“It's beyond belief,” said Kegel, dean of Montana State University-Northern's College of Technical Sciences. “It's pretty impressive to see it do that. And then see it do that again. We're one of the only colleges in the country that has this machine.”
The gantry router is one of three computerized-numeric-control machines recently installed at MSU-N's Applied Technology Center. The school also has a lathe and a machining center. All of the machines work off computer-aided design and manufacturing programs that allow students and instructors to create a three-dimensional schematic of a piece. Once the program is written, the machines can use a cutting bit - the router offers 20 choices - to make the part again and again. The machines will cut through just about any kind of material, Kegel said.
The machines work in tandem with a digital coordinate measuring machine. The equipment - a silver arm and laptop mounted on a tripod - plots points in three dimensions. The system can be used to create a digital schematic of a part, which is then transferred to the manufacturing equipment, or to check the accuracy of the measurements of a part that's already been made.
The equipment is just a part of what's going on at the university's newest building, set to fully open this spring or at the start of classes next fall.
The college is in the process of installing a dynamometer powerful enough to stop a Freightliner running full-tilt. An atomic spectrometer and other donated equipment will allow students to test engine oil for metals to learn which parts of a diesel engine are wearing down. The center's portable hoists are strong enough to lift a Big Bud tractor. New educational trainers will allow students to learn about hydraulic systems in a classroom before they dig into a tractor engine, or troubleshoot modern automotive electrical systems.
“It's the newest, state-of-the-art stuff,” said Larry Strizich, chair of the College of Technical Sciences. “It's what the kids are going to run into out in the industry.”
Associate professor Lynn Stilger said new trainers will be much easier for students to use in learning about hydraulic sysems, which are often “hidden away and hard to visualize” on diesel engines.
The new building isn't only for education. While students will be able to use the latest technology in their coursework, Kegel hopes the center will become a hub for applied research, allowing industry and science to combine in the testing of new products and equipment.
This week, representatives and investors from Great Falls-based HCSI Manufacturing LLC visited the college to take a look at the dynamometer. Company president Tom VanHoose wants to test the Hydro-Cell Performance Enhancer, a hydrogen fuel cell add-on that is intended to increase the power and efficiency of diesel engines while decreasing air pollution.
The company is trying to get U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certification for the part, which increases the combustion temperature of diesel in the engine, burning off particulates and greenhouse gases before they reach a big rig's exhaust system.
VanHoose said he hopes the company can form a long-lasting collaborative relationship with MSU-N. That relationship and others like it, he said, will help keep jobs in Montana. The last place HCSI looked for a dynamometer they could use? Memphis, Tenn.
Industry has played a major role in the building, Kegel said. Case New Holland now has a year-round relationship with the school, in which agricultural equipment is placed at the college for students to use in their education. The company also sends employees to the school for training. Toyota and other companies made donations of funds and equipment to fill the rooms of the Applied Technology Center, Kegel said. State and federal money, as well as local donations, also were used to help fund the building's construction and to purchase equipment.
There's been no shortage of interest in the building from the Havre community, Kegel added.
HCSI is only one of the companies that have approached MSU-N to do research in the new building, Kegel said. Linking science and industry is “really the most significant part of what we're trying to do.”
“Applied research, that's what it's all about,” said diesel technology professor Greg Clouse.
Once the school's dynamometer - one of the largest made - is installed, the college will complete its control room, which will include at least four computers and four flat-screen monitors to manage 16 kinds of data gathered by the testing equipment, Clouse said. Students will work with the equipment from behind reinforced walls and bulletproof glass - safety meaures one needs when working with a 1,000-horsepower engine. The information is stored and recorded, and industry representatives also have the option of watching the tests from the building's sleek, new Hensler Auditorium.
Once everything is installed, instructors and students can run tests on anything, including a tractor-trailer. They can get the big rig up to full speed before using the 2,500 gallons of water coursing through the dynamometer's drums to simulate loads and grades. The pressure can be increased until the tractor is halted in its tracks, Kegel said.