RCBI transforms ideas into innovations

Every day, mechanical engineers and industrial technicians working collaboratively with clients of the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) at Marshall University assist in tackling complex manufacturing challenges.

With 700 years of combined industrial experience, the experts in RCBI’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centers in South Charleston and Huntington help inventors, entrepreneurs, small businesses and major manufacturers from across West Virginia and beyond transform ideas into innovations.

“People approach us all of the time with great ideas – even revolutionary ones,” explained Derek Scarbro, RCBI deputy director. “Many do not have computer-aided-design skills to bring their ideas to life. They often don’t know about material options we have available, how strong their products need to be or which manufacturing process they should use. That’s where our engineers and machinists excel. RCBI’s knowledgeable staff members understand not just how to make practically anything, but how to make it better and how to produce it more economically.”

This expertise has been critical for West Virginia manufacturers whose supply chains were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many continue to struggle to obtain critical components required to keep operations humming.

A Kanawha Valley chemical producer faced costly delays when it was unable to readily purchase hydrocyclones – liquid separators used in its production process – from a German supplier. A six-month lead time threatened to curtail production, costing time and money as the company awaited arrival of the critical parts from overseas.

Like a growing number of companies, the chemical manufacturer turned to RCBI for solutions. RCBI engineers and technicians used precision equipment to scan the hydrocyclones, created 3D drawings then reproduced them using an engineering-grade resin and 3D printing technology. The replacement parts kept the company’s production line operational and reduced lead-time from six months to a just week.

“Two years into the pandemic, disruptions continue to reverberate through the supply chain,” Scarbro said. “Many of the hundreds of manufacturers we assist each year cannot get critical components they require to avoid downtime, maintain productivity and keep expenses in line.

“Fortunately, RCBI leverages our advanced technology and expertise to develop creative solutions that keep operations running smoothly.”

Greg Null owns and operates Null’s Machine & Manufacturing, the Huntington business his parents founded in 1967. His company produces parts and assemblies for a variety of industries, from military to mining and agriculture to construction.

Null has struggled to secure specialized insulators from his supplier, which has intermittent problems obtaining the chemicals from overseas required to make the plastic parts. Of the 24 components Null uses to produce specialized spooling shaft assemblies, the insulator is the only one he doesn’t manufacturer himself.

Null needs the insulators to fulfill contracts with industrial clients such as Caterpillar and J.H. Fletcher & Co., so he turned to RCBI for assistance. Null was familiar with RCBI’s capabilities because he previously created product prototypes with RCBI’s help.

Null huddled with RCBI Design Engineer Morgan Smith to recreate the specialized insulator. First, Smith drew three-dimensional computer renderings from which he generated a 3D-printed prototype. Then he consulted with Null to ensure the part met precise specifications. Next, he 3D-printed a mold that he used to produce the part from urethane, which met the tensile strength required of the industrial component.

Once the process is complete and production is brought in-house, Null said he expects not only to consistently fill orders in a timely fashion, but to reap financial savings of as much as 84 percent and reduce his lead times when he quotes.

U.S. Air Force veteran Tad Robinette recently established his own machine shop – Liberty Hill Company – after completing machinist training at RCBI. The Kanawha County resident landed his first contract after RCBI connected him to another West Virginia manufacturer looking for a subcontractor to produce the precision parts.

Using the shared manufacturing model in which RCBI supplies the equipment and expertise while clients provide an operator and raw materials, Robinette set about producing 600 airflow diverters used in the energy sector. The business owner quickly realized that traditional manufacturing of the parts one at a time on a computer-controlled mill was time-consuming – and eating into his profits.

Robinette had an idea for a jig, a specialized device to hold the metal being machined and guide the tools shaping it, which would allow him to produce multiple parts at once, reducing machine setups and changeouts.

Robinette had met Smith while he was training at RCBI. “Just a few steps away was a guy who could take my idea and turn it into a three-dimensional object,” Robinette explained. Smith produced 3D renderings of Robinette’s design then 3D-printed prototypes for testing. After adjustments, Robinette machined the jig from aluminum, allowing him to produce multiple parts simultaneously.

“This enabled me to make 20 parts at a time, turning raw material into components worth hundreds of dollars in minutes, not only cutting my cost to manufacture but increasing productivity and production.”

Robinette said Smith’s expertise also resulted in additional cost savings. “Morgan was able to calculate the forces the jig would undergo. By determining the tensile strength required of the piece, he concluded that I could manufacture the part from aluminum rather than more expensive steel, saving additional money.

“RCBI is a one-stop shop for everything you need, from training to design engineering to production assistance,” Robinette said. “The model created here clearly works. I’m proof of that.”

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