Rapid Design, Rapid Problem Solving

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At Moog Components Group, based in the mountain town of Murphy, North Carolina, there is no room for error.

The company’s precision motors are used in passenger planes, weapons systems, medical devices, and other high-end products. A Moog motor’s performance can be a matter of life and death.

“That’s why they’re still made in America,” said Stephen Caldwell, one of Moog’s senior manufacturing engineers. “And that’s why we test every last one of them before they leave the facility.”

That level of testing, where every component is started up and evaluated before it leaves the factory, is rare in manufacturing. Where most facilities assess a sample of their products, Moog has to test every unit. That’s critical for the customers they serve, but it’s also time-consuming and costly.

To improve the speed of testing, Caldwell and other Moog engineers have worked with a team of students at the Center for Rapid Product Realization at Western Carolina University. As part of a senior capstone project, the Western students designed and built a prototype workstation that can more quickly assess and certify Moog’s electric motors.

“We gave them a little bit of direction, then let them run with it,” Caldwell said of the students. “They came up with some pretty creative stuff.”

The new procedure could allow Moog to ship motors more quickly, opening the door for expansion.

“It benefits us, and it benefits the students,” Caldwell said. “This wasn’t some fictitious project. This is the kind of real- world problem they’ll face when they go to work.”

And it’s the kind of hands-on project that has become a specialty of Western Carolina’s Rapid Center. Under the direction of Patrick Gardner, a retired Air Force Colonel with a long history in research and development, the Rapid Center has been a boon both for students and for North Carolina’s advanced manufacturing sector.

“Through project-based learning, we get to bring real and relevant problems into the classroom,” Gardner said. “We work directly with regional industries to design solutions. It’s a really cool formula.”

Local companies have come to rely on the convenience of the Rapid Center, which can deliver a prototype faster than out-of-state facilities. Every year, Snap-on Incorporated manufactures more than $100M in high-quality power tools at the company’s plant in Murphy. The company has on-site engineers and designers working in product development, allowing them to collaborate with the workers on the manufacturing lines.

Before they’re cast in metal, many of those new tools are laser-printed in resin by Western Carolina.

“We use Western all the time to make 3D models during the design phase, so we can actually hold them in our hands and see what the tool is going to feel like,” said Matthew Patterson, a product engineer with a degree from NC State.

“There are things you just can’t tell from a computer simulation, and it’s great to be able to put a model in a customer’s hand, put it under the hood of a car or a truck, and see how it feels.”

With WCU less than ninety minutes away, Snap-on engineers can e-mail a digital design and have a printed prototype back within a day or two. Patterson held up an amber-hued model of an impact drill, made by Western’s Rapid Center, showing how the 3D model allowed Snap-on to detect a problem in the drill’s grip before it went into production.

“We get it quick, and it helps us refine the design faster,” Patterson said.