Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
February 8, 2008
Rockford, Ill. — People don’t often think of engineers as matchmakers, but the engineers at NIU’s Rapid Optimization of Commercial Knowledge (NIU-ROCK) group aren’t afraid of working against stereotype.
Their goal is to make the Rock River Valley a vital link in the Department of Defense supply chain, and sometimes, they have found that the best way to achieve that goal is to make a few introductions. Case in point – Protoform, a Rockford-based company with a new laser cladding technology to refurbish worn metal parts, which produces results superior to methods used by industry today.
“Protoform is a terrific example of what NIU-ROCK is trying to do,” says Director Dick Johnson. “It not only demonstrates our skill as matchmakers, but also showcases our efforts to bring new technologies to Rockford and create a new pool of manufacturers for the Department of Defense.”
This particular bit of matchmaking began with Alion, where Johnson and his assistant director, Al Swiglo, had actually helped create the new laser cladding process that can salvage expensive, high-wear parts that in the past had to be thrown away. It could be machine parts, propeller shafts, rail car parts, even parts used in river locks. Sometimes it can do the job for as little as 10 percent of the cost of replacing the part. Often, the refurbished piece is stronger and better than a new one.
Unique in its use of diode lasers, it is superior to older versions of the process because it allows for better heat control, meaning less melting of the base layer, resulting in a much better finished product. A panel of international scientists recognized the process as one of the 100 most important new technological innovations of 2004, and its effectiveness has been proven restoring parts for the U.S. Navy.
Despite such accolades and success, the technology has been slow to catch on commercially. To remedy that, NIU-ROCK turned to Mike Molander who has spent his entire career in the fabrication industry, including 27 years at L.J. Fabricators, where he was the vice president of technical services. That company had a history of being an early adopter of new technologies, embracing them and introducing them to the Rockford market. That mindset was just what NIU-ROCK was seeking.
“We were looking for someone with experience in the manufacturing sector with the marketing skills to take this process to market. We had worked with Mike on other projects and knew he was the right man for the job,” said Swiglo.
The final piece of the puzzle was the Abilities Center, which has long worked to give individuals skills they could apply at local manufacturers. Johnson and Swiglo knew the organization was looking to expand their programs to include more “cutting edge” skills, and recognized laser cladding as a perfect fit as it complements existing manufacturing capabilities in Rockford.
The combination of skills that Alion, Molander and the Abilities Center bring to the project believe all involved, could soon launch a new industry in Rockford, attracting new military and commercial contracts that will translate into the type of well-paying manufacturing jobs that have been increasingly scarce in Rockford.
Protoform is currently pursuing not just military contracts, but is also touting the technology to industries ranging from food processing to mining. It is only a matter of time, Molander believes before the technology catches on and jobs can be created. None of that would have been possible, without NIU-Rock, he says.
“NIU- ROCK is a good group of people to be working with, they are very dedicated to Rockford and to me,” Molander says. They have stuff going on all over the place, every time I see them they have something new and its all on the cusp - which is an exciting place to be.”
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