WSU grad students' machine wins $10,000

Two Wichita State University graduate students and a machine that shapes and strengthens aluminum won $10,000 last week in the annual Shocker Business Plan competition.

Mahdi Saket Kashani, a doctoral student in industrial and manufacturing engineering, and Palanivel Swaminathan, a master's student in the same discipline, won the contest for their plan to develop, build and market a structural bending machine.

Under the name Fairmount Technologies, the company would build a machine to bend and strengthen lighter-weight aluminum for airplane fuselages and automobile crash cages.

The aluminum extrusions are "sort of the 2x4s of airplanes," said Hal Pluenneke, the students' business plan adviser.

The two students, in conjunction with Vis Madhavan, a WSU professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering, developed a process called stretch metal forming to shape and strengthen aluminum.

Now, they're developing a plan to build and sell the structural forming machine, valued at between $600,000 and $900,000 each.

"To us, these guys were the clear-cut winner," said contest judge David Mitchell, of Mitchell & Richards CPAs.

"We felt clearly that there would be interested parties out there to fund this idea and see that this company succeeds ... and there already are. There are already investors interested in this project."

The $10,000 first prize, along with a $100,000 Small Business Innovation and Research grant from the Defense Logistics Agency, will be used to produce a "proof of concept machine," demonstrating the forming process.

Then, it will be time to invite investors into the company to begin producing the machine, primarily for aviation and automobile builders.

Pluenneke said the machine grew out of Madhavan's research beginning in 2005, with Kashani as his graduate student.

"I think that the SBIR grant is proof that the concept has technical merit, and their win in the business plan competition is proof that the plan has marketability," he said.

The students said they're trying to raise $1 million to build the industrial version of the machine by the end of 2011; Mitchell thinks they'll need twice that.

"The judges immediately saw all sorts of applications for that machine and what it could mean to several businesses, including our core businesses in Wichita," Mitchell said.

"I mean, these guys have buyers right now within walking distance of the university. This is a business idea we were all very excited about."