From paper to prototype: LSSU’s Product Development Center is engineering new ideas

Lake Superior State University is the smallest university in Michigan, but it has something big to offer inventors and entrepreneurs -- the opportunity to confidentially use students, staff, equipment and other resources to bring business designs and ideas to the marketplace.

"It's a bonus for everyone involved: the students, the university, the clients and the economy," says Tom Pink, director of Public Relations.

This little known part of the university is LSSU's Product Development Center. The center offers mechanical, electrical and manufacturing services as well as a $1 million robotics facility.

Currently, it has about 200 clients, and the number is growing. The scope for the center's work is much larger than just the Upper Peninsula, too, including companies as close as Minnesota and Canada, and as far away as New Mexico and India. The center tends to team up with small companies and individuals trying to get their ideas off the ground.

Engineering students usually gain much of their experience in industry through senior design projects. For these projects, the university partners up with companies like Continental in Auburn Hills, Delphi and Chrysler. However, projects don't always fit conveniently with the number of students that need work and in the time frame they have to work on it. Before the center was created, many potential clients had to be turned away.

"So we thought, let's make an entity that can help small inventors coming in; then it could be a short project or take years," says Eric Becks, the center's project manager. Prior to the PDC, some highly specialized equipment, like the university's computerized numerical control machine, might get used just a few weeks out of the semester. "Take that and multiply it by all the different tools and equipment that we have here," he says. "That gives a lot of opportunity to put it to use for someone else."

Previously known as the Prototype Development Center, the PDC is the result of a Michigan 21st Century grant the university received in 2007 from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The funding provided startup salaries for two years and money for equipment like a 3-D scanner, laser welder and a subtractive rapid prototyper.

Students are employed by the center and work alongside professors and two full-time project managers, Becks and David Leach, who between them have over 40 years of practice in their fields. "Eric and David have a wealth of experience working in industry and as entrepreneurs and they share their expertise with our engineering faculty and students," says Ronald DeLap, dean of the college.

The first project the center can openly publicize is its work with a client to create Skate Fenders, a molded plastic shield part of an ice skate that protects hockey players when hit by a puck. In professional hockey, the force of a slap shot is said to be about the same as a .22-caliber bullet. The PDC has had an active role in developing Skate Fenders, from defining a 3-D drawing of the product to helping the client select a mold maker and plastics company for production. Today, they are worn by players on several professional hockey teams and are produced with the LSSU logo on the package. Skate Fenders are patented in the U.S. and patent-pending in Canada.

Though the project is still under wraps, Energizer has acknowledged that the PDC has done work for the company. Energizer came to the center with an already patented concept and wanted a real unit built. In the process of doing that, the PDC added intellectual property to the mix that was of additional value to the company. However, the center can't discuss its relationship with Energizer further. "When I see it on a shelf somewhere, then I'll be able to say more," says Becks.

The center's other projects span many fields, including medical prototypes. It is also devising a special surgical instrument and a device to prevent deep vein thrombosis (blood clots) in patients who are unable to walk. The PDC has also worked on dental tools and home care support devices for special needs patients. Other tools created for a surgeon will go into clinical testing shortly.

The equipment that makes all these feats possible is the hallmark of the PDC, and can give the center an edge over traditional product development. Among its many machines, the PDC has a rapid prototyper that's able to make plastic parts without first having to create a mold. By putting a 3-D drawing into the computer, the prototyper acts like a 3-D printer, putting down a few thousands of an inch of plastic over and over to build a product. By using this machine in one instance, the center was able to bring an idea that came in drawn on a napkin to reality in less than 72 hours. "The client was really impressed," Becks says.

Another unique service available to clients is the center's surface mount electronics setup. It's a way of robotically assembling electronic circuits found in items such as cell phones and computers. "Typically, if you're going to get a surface mount board made, you'd hope your design was good and you'd contact a company in Taiwan or Korea, get thousands produced and hope you did it right," says Becks.

At a much lesser risk, the PDC allows a client to produce just one, 10, or 100 of their product in order to test the technology. The methods used by the PDC to create these circuit boards differ from conventional methods, but they're not about to give away how they do it. "Two very large companies have had us do work recently that was surface mounted," Becks says. "We're good at that."

The reason this work is being conducted in your backyard and you don't know it, is because the center must keep much of its work secret. The PDC establishes a confidentiality agreement in each initial proposal. In the beginning stages of a new invention, with no patent or copyright established, clients need to feel safe bringing the center all the details. While this level of security is reassuring to clients, Becks says, "on the other hand, that makes it pretty difficult to advertise what you've done."

Raised in historic Calumet, Victoria Peters always dreamed of pursuing a career in journalism, or becoming an "ABC girl," as she referred to the profession in her kindergarten days. A recent graduate of Michigan Technological University, she now resides in Sault Ste. Marie in the eastern Upper Peninsula. Peters currently works as a receptionist, freelance writer and copy editor.

Signup for Email Alerts