$1.9 million grant will help Wichita State build unprecedented high-tech lab

Jay Williams, right, the U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, talks with WSU/WACT robotics instructor Bruce Handyside during a tour the National Center for Aviation Training. Williams announced a $1.9 million grant to WSU Friday.
Jay Williams, right, the U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, talks with WSU/WACT robotics instructor Bruce Handyside during a tour the National Center for Aviation Training. Williams announced a $1.9 million grant to WSU Friday. The Wichita Eagle

Scientists are about to start building a laboratory at Wichita State University. Only a couple of years ago, they say, the things this lab will do might have seemed possible only in a “Star Trek” episode or in far-fetched sci-fi movies.

WSU on Friday was awarded a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Grants don’t always attract high-profile attention. But this announcement drew Gov. Sam Brownback to stand and smile alongside an official from the Obama administration. After all, this is really about Kansas jobs, perhaps as many as 500 said WSU president John Bardo.

WSU administrators say they will find $2 million in matching money from university funds and business partners. With nearly $4 million, their scientists will shop for high-tech lab parts and software.

“What we’ll build, you can’t buy,” WSU’s vice president John Tomblin said, at the announcement.

What they plan to invent and build next year is a lab that’s never been built anywhere, he said.

One room will be a large, virtual-reality space where scientists can invent and virtually assemble complex products – from lawn chairs to tables to new bicycle models to aircraft interiors to new versions of flying drones. For now, they are calling it the “Flex Cave.”

“Think ‘Star Trek,’” Tomblin said. “It’s kinda like the holodeck on ‘Star Trek,’ only not quite.” (“Star Trek’s” holodeck simulated interactive objects and people.)

“In that space, we’ll put together designs of products in a virtual world,” Tomblin said. “And when you like it, you go in the lab room next door … and hit ‘print.’ ”

Which brings us to the second room: It will be what amounts to a room-size 3D printer, only far more complex, with multiple, high-tech robots assembling big, complex products.

They have a strange name for that room that they say won’t sound strange after it becomes common throughout industry: “MRAM,” pronounced like “Em-ram.”

Multiple Robotic Additive Manufacturing.

Most 3D printers are the size of microwave ovens. Industrial-size printers are a little bigger than big refrigerators. The MRAM cell that WSU now proposes to invent and build will be much larger, with the possibility of eight, 10 or a dozen robots working together to make complex assemblies of things.

WSU hopes the labs will attract entrepreneurs and inventors to come to WSU and make things, using the new tools to test production process before committing to large-scale capital investments.

Tomblin is WSU’s vice president for research and technology transfer. The parts bought with the federal grant will help WSU become a leading university-based research center for advanced manufacturing, he said. And that means jobs for Wichita and Kansas, he said.

It will enhance entrepreneurship, Gov. Sam Brownback added. “There is no community anywhere that does all of that better than Wichita,” the governor said. “Wichita is a natural entrepreneurial environment. It’s in your roots; it’s in your gene system here.”

Students will use all this, Tomblin said. So will new the business partners that he and Bardo have talked into coming on board with the WSU’s new innovation campus.

The equipment will be set up in WSU’s planned Experiential Engineering building, Tomblin said. But until that building gets built, the new lab will be set up at WSU’s laboratories at the National Center for Aviation Training.

Investing in Wichita

WSU got this grant, said Jay Williams, the U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, because his agency has a long history of success investing in Wichita.

And “investing” is the correct word, he said in an interview before the presentation. Keeping taxes low creates a healthy environment for business, he said. “But at times, government has to invest, it must invest to make job creation more possible.”

Groundbreaking for the experiential engineering building is planned for February, located where the vacant Wheatshocker Apartments building is now.

WSU’s scientists in charge of the new lab, including Shawn Ehrstein and Brian Brown, say we’re all going to hear the phrase “additive manufacturing,” a lot more after this. At the news conference Friday, Brown enthusiastically showed Williams a small robot much like the manufacturing robots he will help install with the new money.

“Additive manufacturing” is revolutionizing the manufacturing process now, and industrialists, including those who make airplanes, will be paying attention to what WSU is doing with it from now on, Brown said.

Most manufacturing until now was “subtractive,” Brown said. For example, you take a big block of metal and cut (subtract) a lot of it to make a block into the size and measurement you want.

Additive manufacturing is what 3D printers do. They start with nothing but a strand of composite material and make an aircraft part or a toy or a precisely made car part from it by “adding” material.

When you do this in a room full of computer-controlled robots, you get something approaching Star Trek, although Ehrstein and Brown chuckled at Tomblin’s reference to the TV show. “We’re not quite to the holodeck yet,” Brown said.

Ehrstein directs the CAD/CAM laboratories at the National Center for Aviation Training, labs that already employ a lot of aerospace 3D engineering design work. Brown is the associate director.

“What I want to do with the new lab – this is my dream – I want to take one or more robots, have these robots work in tandem to build an entire product, everything in it,” Brown said. “Manufacturers are already doing that with cars, but are still machining (subtracting) many of the parts. What we’ll be able to do with this is even more cool – build a complete product, like a flying drone, right there in one room with additive manufacturing.”

Other abilities this lab will provide, Ehrstein said: with the virtual reality software and with goggles, you’d be able as an aerospace engineer or manufacturer to actually sit in the middle of the complete aircraft interior you’re designing. You’d be able to see it all around you as you make, test and modify it.

Most 3D printers can make things with only one material, usually plastic, Ehrstein said. The MRAM they want to build would include robots making parts and products from multiple materials – plastic, metal, and more.

“We could make consumer goods,” Brown said. “Anything from aircraft parts, lawn furniture to tables – we could even make small electronics. You could make coffee pots with it and paint it in there. We’d be limited only by how many robot heads we could put in there.”

It’s not all about mass manufacturing, he said. Need a customized chair, built to your size, and to the shape of the curve of your back? This is the technology that will eventually do that work for all of us, Brown said.

WSU hopes to buy the lab equipment by the end of this year and have it set up by sometime next summer, Ehrstein said.

“People have been talking about doing all of this for a while, but no one is doing it yet,” Ehrstein said. “We think it can be done here.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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