$2 million grant for WSU research lab will create jobs, keep Wichita the Air Capital

A federal $2 million economic development grant for an aviation laboratory at Wichita State University is expected to create 150 jobs while preparing the city for the future of the industry.

“This is one more step in making certain that Wichita remains the Air Capital of the World,” Sen. Jerry Moran said Friday at WSU.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration will go to WSU’s Advanced Technology Lab for Aerospace Systems, or ATLAS, at the National Institute for Aviation Research.

Moran said the $2 million grant will support the purchase of advanced manufacturing equipment, which is projected to create 150 new jobs in the region. He said the grant will provide workforce tools for “the businesses in Wichita here today, and the businesses that will be in Wichita in the future that will come here because of this.”

Acting President Rick Muma said the Wichita State lab equipment funded by the grant will aid industry partners as students gain research experience.

The aviation industry faces demands for higher production rates, a growing complexity of programs, an evolving workforce and a challenge to innovate with a flat budget, said John Tomblin, WSU vice president for research and technology transfer.

Helping manufacturers keep up with demand is what the research lab intends to do.

“Some of the work we do, including machine learning and things like that, is primarily focused on increasing the manufacturing rate and also minimizing the defects so the aircraft companies don’t have to spend too much time repairing them,” said Waruna Seneviratne, NIAR technical director.

He said the ATLAS lab will use robotics, materials, processes and inspection systems to develop technologies to advance manufacturing. The automated manufacturing equipment and different materials are intended to increase production, especially in building aircraft structures that are otherwise complicated or labor-intensive.

“With automated manufacturing, you think that this is going to affect some of these laborious jobs, but it’s actually creating a new set of jobs,” Seneviratne said. “Although the robots will do these things automatically, somebody has to program the robot, somebody has to maintain the robot. So we will be creating jobs related to simulation, analysis, inspection, programming, manufacturing robots, and there’s still a lot of manual labor involved in the whole process.”

Debra Franklin, director of strategic initiatives at WSU, said the majority of jobs created by the grant will be in the private sector.

Seneviratne said the lab can be like a maker’s space for small businesses, where trying out ideas on lab machines and software can help industry partners make investment decisions. The lab also will provide a unique opportunity to students.

“For our students, they’ll be solving different problems every day working with the industry continuously,” Seneviratne said. “So while we’re doing our research, we’re actually creating a pipeline of future engineers that have all these skills related to advanced manufacturing technologies, and when they leave the school to get a job, they’ll be ready for it — there’s no training required.”

The grant funds new equipment, including a tape slitter, vacuum table and an autoclave with wireless sensors, rheometer, nitrogen generator and a heated platen press.

John Fleming, director of the Economic Development Administration, said the agency has previously invested $10 million in WSU’s Innovation Campus. The agency said the aviation research lab will benefit commercial and defense aircraft.

“With 600 manufacturing firms doing business here, and with 1 in 5 workers in Sedgwick County employed in manufacturing, building on these core strengths is absolutely critical to the future competitiveness of this region,” Fleming said.

Moran, who is a member of the defense appropriations committee, said the priority of the military’s budget is maintenance and prolonging the life of equipment. Research at Wichita State can help do that.

“It’s not just a cost-saving thing,” the senator said. “That’s an important one, but more important than that is it makes our military men and women more safe as they serve our country.”

Tomblin, the university’s vice president of research, said the lab is important for the future of Wichita.

“We’re called the Air Capital of the World,” he said. “ ... We make all of the business aircraft. We make the Learjet, we make the Cessna, we make the Beechcraft. ... We employ over 15,000 people making the nose of every Boeing aircraft; every 737 fuselage is produced in Wichita. ... We are the No. 1 manufacturing community ... we are the number No. 1 region, according to Brookings, dependent on STEM education. We’re No. 3 in percentages of engineers.”

“We make parts that defy gravity, that’s what we do,” Tomblin continued. “We make parts, the most complicated parts in the world, that defy physics, and we have done that for years and years and years. The cornerstone of today’s announcement is how do we stay the air capital in the future.”

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