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RCBI: Inventors' Toolkit

RCBI Inventors' Toolkit

When the space shuttle Atlantis thundered into orbit in May 2009, it had aboard a vital piece of equipment that might easily have carried a “Made in West Virginia” label. On board the shuttle was a new camera destined for the Hubble Space Telescope, carefully stored in a protective carrier built in West Virginia.

RCBI Inventors' Toolkit
Jeff Imel (left), shown here with RCBI Director of Manufacturing Services Arley Carpenter, has worked closely with RCBI since moving his company, Air Robotics, Inc., to West Virginia

The Super Lightweight Interchangeable Carrier – called “SLIC” for short – was built at FMW Composite Systems Inc. in Fairmont, working closely with the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI) and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The SLIC looks very much like an ordinary hotel luggage cart, but it’s a truly revolutionary piece of equipment because it’s crafted from carbon fiber composite material, making it both lighter and stronger than its all-metal predecessors.

“It performed magnificently well,” Frank Cepollina, deputy associate director for the Hubble Space Telescope Development Project at Goddard, said following the flight. “It’s the carrier that basically made this mission possible. … The Hubble team, with the help of RCBI and FMW Composites, has led the way with SLIC. These composite structures will play a vital role in the future of all human space flight.”

RCBI Inventors' Toolkit
Photo courtesy of NASA

RCBI became involved in the project soon after FMW won a contract to build the carrier, said Director and CEO Charlotte Weber. FMW utilized test equipment, training facilities, laser measuring systems and computercontrolled lathes and mills at RCBI.

RCBI has also assisted FMW in developing titanium matrix and metal components for a variety of applications for Boeing Aircraft, GE Engines and Rolls-Royce Engines.

“I can’t overstate how critical the assistance from RCBI is to our business,” said FMW President Dale McBride. “We regularly take advantage of RCBI expertise, whether in the form of technical training or the hightech equipment that ensures we are able to complete our projects on time and, at the same time, meet the stringent requirements.”

Established in 1990, RCBI serves as an innovative catalyst for economic development by providing manufacturers, entrepreneurs and workers access to the 21st century equipment and skills they need to compete in today’s global marketplace.

RCBI Inventors' Toolkit
The Handyscan 3D Digital Laser Scanner, used here by RCBI Production Engineer Christopher H. Figgatt, is self-positioning and truly portable, meaning it can perform work anywhere, from RCBI to a shop floor or even in the field for a quick assessment.

RCBI’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centers in Huntington, Charleston, Bridgeport and Rocket Center (near Keyser in the state’s Eastern Panhandle) offer leased time on state-of-the-market, computer-controlled manufacturing equipment and a wide variety of technical training (general and customized on-site training), as well as workforce development initiatives.

Cutting-edge technologies available at RCBI include reverse engineering, 3D printing and prototyping, laser cutting, wire EDM, Swiss turning center, and waterjet technology. Services include quality certification/implementation, business development and the 21st Century Manufacturing Network, a computerized database linking West Virginia manufacturers and providing up-to-the-minute information on contract opportunities. RCBI’s Bridgeport facility is home to West Virginia’s Composite Center of Excellence, which worked closely with FMW on the SLIC project.

“Not every project we’re involved with is as exciting or glamorous as SLIC,” said Weber. “But we approach each with the same level of dedication and commitment. And make no mistake about it, SLIC dramatically points the way to West Virginia’s future – a future where the sky’s no limit.”

Two entrepreneurs who can offer dramatic testimony to that fact are Rick Houvouras of Huntington and Jeff Imel of Charleston.

Houvouras is the managing partner of Star Technologies, LLC, which manufactures a broad array of fasteners for the aviation industry and other customers. In a typical year it will produce more than three million parts.

RCBI Inventors' Toolkit
“I tell all of my peers that are in high-tech manufacturing the only plac e to be right now is West Virginia.

We have RCBI, MATRIC, TechConnectWV, the West Virginia High Tech Consortium, the Chemical Alliance Zone and so many more organizations that help new businesses to thrive, grow and employ.”

Jeff Imel, Owner

The company got its start in 1994, when Houvouras and a group of other local investors saw an opportunity in the departure of a long-time Huntington fastener plant, Adel Precision Products Corp. A Californiabased company bought the plant, closed it and moved the jobs to the West Coast. That left many of Adel’s veteran employees jobless. Some had never worked anywhere else.

Enter Houvouras and the other local investors who teamed up and raised $800,000 to start Star Technologies. The new venture began operation by hiring a half-dozen former Adel employees – and turning to RCBI for help.

“RCBI not only allowed us to use hightech machines that we wouldn’t otherwise have had access to, but provided training for our employees to help them use the latest technology,” Houvouras said.

And, too, RCBI helped the company obtain the quality certifications required by major companies such as GE. “We now manufacture 200 different designs for GE,” Houvouras said.

RCBI Inventors' Toolkit
Air Robotics Im IV-B Airborne Vehicle System with Modular Payload Lifting System.

Photo courtesy Air Robotics, Inc.

Jeff Imel started out making model airplanes. Today he’s the owner of Air Robotics, Inc., a company that makes and markets an ultralight flying drone that looks a lot like a miniature stealth bomber. It has a six-foot wingspan and weighs only 2.5 pounds. A payload pod strapped underneath can carry up to 15 pounds of cameras and sensors. Imel says he originally envisioned his creation as solely of use to the military but has come to realize it has broad civilian applications as well.

Imel moved his company to West Virginia from Indiana about two years ago and is quick to praise his adopted state.

“I tell all my colleagues that West Virginia is the place to be,” Imel said. “The opportunities here with the support of places like RCBI are comparable to none across the country. RCBI has been instrumental to our success here in West Virginia.”

RCBI Inventors' Toolkit
RCBI Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center located in Bridgeport, W.Va.

Now, RCBI has unveiled its newest venture, its Design Works labs.

The Design Works labs offer inventors and entrepreneurs the tools they need to take their idea or concept to reality. Aspiring inventors or entrepreneurs can use specialized computer software to shape their ideas into threedimensional digital computer models that can be used to create working prototypes. The prototype can then in turn be used to test the form, fit and function of the end-use product.

“Today’s new and emerging technologies are rewriting the book on manufacturing,” said Weber. “And I’m proud to say RCBI is playing an essential role in the book’s newest chapters.”

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