NIAR's applied research pays off

Wichita State University's long effort to turn research into money has borne its first fruit.

The Advanced Joining and Processing Laboratory at WSU's National Institute for Aviation Research has licensed some of its friction stir welding technology to a manufacturer.

Friction stir welding is a relatively new technology primarily used to weld aluminum. The WSU application, called an end effector, attaches to the end of a robot welding arm.

The application has been licensed by Manufacturing Technology Inc. of South Bend, Ind., which makes friction stir welding equipment. The company will sell mainly to aerospace companies, but also to the automobile industry, said Bill Johnson, sales manager for Manufacturing Technology's friction stir welding division.

There's already interest among Wichita's planemakers in the welders, Johnson said.

The company paid the university $30,000 to license the technology in the first year, said David McDonald, associate provost for research at WSU. The company will pay an annual fee.

Half of the fee goes to the developer, lab director Dwight Burford, and half to the university. The university will use the money to fund additional research.

The deal is exciting to university officials because it is the first of many expected deals to commercialize university research.

Although aircraft research center NIAR is now more than 20 years old, the university has more recently stepped up efforts to use research as economic development.

It put McDonald over the research effort in 2006. His job is to identify promising research and help get that research incorporated into commercial uses.

The university's effort to boost its research effort has succeeded very well, McDonald said. The university brought in more than $60 million in government and corporate grants —two-thirds in aerospace — in the most recent year. That's about twice the amount it was six years ago, he said.

Now, McDonald said, the university is seeing proof that it has created a pipeline to funnel that research into the marketplace. WSU is using the National Institute for Strategic Technology Acquisition and Commercialization at Kansas State University to market the products.

The university is stepping up at a time when private industry, including the local aircraft industry, has pulled back on research and development, McDonald said.

The university's mission remains primarily educational, he said. It isn't trying to replace industry research and development.

This is particularly important to note, he said, because WSU isn't doing basic research, but the kind of applied research that companies often do. In other words, he said, the university isn't simply taking on another function being shed by companies, like worker training.

The university understands that it might not earn back all of the dollars spent on faculty salaries and equipment used in the research.

But, he said, if WSU students working with faculty gain invaluable experience doing real research — and a local company benefits from a new invention — that's a good thing.

"We'll have to be prudent on what we decide to pursue," he said. "But we'll do it if it's something there's a clear benefit to the university and to the regional aerospace cluster."