WCU’s Kimmel School forms a bridge between the academy and the economy

Engineering students develop skills through project-based experience
while entrepreneurs get prototypes for new products and processes.


Picture a portal that links entrepreneurs and innovators on one side with university engineers, researchers and students on the other. Now imagine a two-way flow of information that results in improved products and enhanced processes as well as more highly skilled engineering students with project-based experience. That combination creates a powerful force for change, and it’s happening at Western Carolina University’s Kimmel School in the Center for Rapid Product Realization, known as the Rapid Center.

“The Rapid Center is beautifully positioned to bridge the academy and the economy,” says Dr. Robert McMahan Jr., who became dean of the Kimmel School in March. “We’re building relationships that give companies access to our extensive resources and to the professional expertise of our faculty who have years of experience in industry. Our business colleagues take away more than a report. We work with them to transition an idea from the concept stage into a finished product or service that adds value to their organization while making them more globally competitive. And, together, through our students’ involvement with these complex projects, we are helping to prepare the next-generation work force.”

Danny Heatherly of Timberclad in Canton knows about complex projects. He brought his idea for artificial poplar bark siding to WCU’s Rapid Center and asked for help developing something that would look like natural wood but could be made of less expensive materials. “We scanned the tree bark and replicated every detail,” says Dr. Phil Sanger, director of the Rapid Center, “but it was too exact. Our rapid prototyping equipment is so precise that it had difficulty with all the details, so we backed off a bit, created a sample in ABS (plastic) and then spray painted it to simulate the colors of real tree bark.”

“I was tickled to work with them,” says Heatherly, who has contracted with a national company to produce artificial poplar bark with favorable fire ratings. “Once I get this thing on the market, it’s going to go worldwide, and we can say it was developed right here in Western North Carolina.”

Through its partnership with Clemson University and UNC Charlotte in the Carolinas MicroOptics Triangle, a research alliance designed to develop fiber-optic communication capacity, the Rapid Center helped Hickory-based US Conec design prototypes for connectors that link fibers smaller than the width of a single hair. “With the university’s help, we can develop products faster,” says Bill Blubaugh, president of US Conec. The Rapid Center also helped Elk Products of Morganton, which manufactures about 80% of the home-security systems sold in the U.S., with a prototype that allowed it to test a complex part without the upfront costs and risks associated with the traditional tooling process. WCU’s engineering faculty also teamed up with Caterpillar construction-equipment company in Franklin to create an inexpensive gauge used in dirty job-site conditions that shorten the operating life of a more costly electronic part. Overall, the Rapid Center has provided technical assistance to more than 100 companies, organizations and entrepreneurs during the past three years.

Those are the kinds of challenges that brought McMahan to the Kimmel School after serving as the state’s science and technology adviser for the governor, legislature and Department of Commerce. He has been a research professor of physics and astronomy at UNC Chapel Hill and an adjunct professor of textile and apparel technology and management at N.C. State. He also has worked as a technology strategist, venture capitalist and business owner. “What we really want to do is play a role in speeding up the process of bringing products to market, leveraging the resources of the university and collaborating with business. Concurrently, the experience our students gain on these complex engineering projects gives them knowledge they can apply and skills they can use on the job from day one,” McMahan says.

WCU’s Kimmel School offers bachelor’s-degree programs in electrical engineering, engineering technology, electrical and computer engineering technology and construction management as well as master’s-degree programs in technology and construction management. It includes the Rapid Center and 17 laboratories, which provide services in optoelectronic systems, rapid prototyping and design, adaptive technologies and intelligent sensor systems.