THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER Enlarge | Buy This Photo
It’s often said that free advice is worth exactly what it costs. Then again, free advice usually doesn’t come from NASA scientists.
On Thursday, it did.
A handful of engineers and scientists from NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland came to Toledo as part of the space agency’s new NASA Roadshow initiative. The space agency’s employees go on the road and offer expertise to businesses that find themselves stuck on engineering or technological problems. The program is a spinoff of the White House’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative and an effort to help get the fruits of publicly funded research into the hands of local businesses, which can help create new jobs.
“I see the seeding of something that can grow and flourish, an embedded public-private partnership between NASA and Ohio to accelerate commercialization, develop new products, new technology, and new jobs,” said Diane Hoyt, manager for innovation and strategic partnerships at NASA headquarters in Washington.
Representatives from five companies attended Thursday’s meeting and workshops at the University of Toledo. Another 11 Ohio and southeastern Michigan firms will either travel to Glenn or receive other support.
“I just think this is an excellent opportunity, especially for local business. Little companies like Metal Forming and Coining don’t get opportunities like this every day,” said Kathy Church, director of process engineering at Metal Forming and Coining Corp.
The Maumee-based company manufactures a variety of transmission and engine parts for customers including Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler Group. It has about 120 employees at its Maumee plant and another 100 at a second facility north of Detroit. Like all companies in the auto industry, it’s working to find cost-effective ways keep up with demands for increasingly efficient cars and trucks.
“We’re hoping to resolve some tooling and processing issues with the help of the NASA engineers. Ultimately, we want to be able to expand our product offering to our customers to meet the current demands of the automotive industry and improve efficiency in the vehicles,” Ms. Church said.
Officials from the company came away from the meetings impressed, and with an invitation to go to Cleveland and speak directly to some of NASA’s transmission engineers.
Companies don’t pay anything to participate in the program. NASA did ask interested firms to submit white papers outlining their concerns and ways they’ve already considered addressing them so NASA officials could find engineers with that specific area of expertise.
“The idea is to match them up perfectly so when they arrive here they get the help they need and their time is not wasted. That’s really key — to understand their challenge well enough to maximize their time,” said Carol Tolbert, an engineer and project manager at NASA Glenn.
Organizers said there have often been barriers, real or perceived, that have blocked private enterprise from working with NASA in the past. Ms. Hoyt said NASA hopes that events like Thursday’s can help open the lines of communication.
“Businesses aren’t used to having someone say, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you’ and mean it. Government is not used to leaving the halls of government and going out to the people and saying, ‘This is what I can do to help you.’ ... [NASA experts] know they have important technology, but they don’t know it can be repurposed and used to solve a problem in a company that has nothing to do with space.”
Problems such as how to cut a material used in temperature-controlled packing.
H&H Specialties started four and a half years ago in Bob Hadley’s garage. The company is now a profitable, 30-employee outfit with expected annual revenues of $1.5 million.
Mr. Hadley co-owns the firm with his brother, Sean. They make a variety of packing products, but their most popular are envelope-size containers that use compressed foam wrapped in a special bladder. When exposed to air — all it takes is a poke from a common house key — the foam expands, sealing its contents inside. Mr. Hadley said their primary customers are pharmaceutical companies that pack prescriptions next to cooling elements. Once the foam expands, the temperature is maintained and the goods are protected.
The company is looking for a better way to cut the material that encases the compressed foam. Currently it’s done with a hot wire, which creates fumes that have to be pumped out of the facility. NASA’s experts proposed some different options, including laser cutters.
“They’re offering different technologies that we’re not familiar with that could improve our existing system,” Mr. Hadley said.
Several Toledo-area groups were involved in bringing the NASA Roadshow to town, including the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce, Rocket Ventures, the University of Toledo, and Toledo Community Foundation.