Engineering students, TEES celebrate 20 years of helping small business maximize energy efficiency

April 17, 2006
| By: Aubrey Bloom

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Aggie student engineers are known for their energy, and they've been helping small businesses in the Brazos Valley save energy for 20 years. Texas A&M University's Industrial Assessment Center (IAC), housed in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, provides no-cost studies of small- and medium-sized manufacturers within about 150 miles of College Station to analyze opportunities to improve energy efficiency, minimize waste and improve productivity. Engineering students under the direction of Texas A&M mechanical engineering faculty and researchers in the Texas Engineering Experiment Station's (TEES) Energy Systems Laboratory analyze a plant's energy waste and productivity issues and help make manufacturers aware of services available to them, such as best practices training, assessments, new and emerging technology, software tools, databases, publications and other information. The center celebrates its 20th anniversary in October, but 2006 is already a big year for the program. Last fall, Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman -- in the wake of energy supply disruptions after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and recent hikes in energy prices -- launched a national campaign to highlight ways for Americans to save energy immediately. As part of this, the U.S. Department of Energy's Industrial Technologies Program (of which the Texas A&M IAC is part) began the "Save Energy Now" program aimed at larger manufacturing plants. "The IAC usually goes to small plants who wouldn't or couldn't pay for our services otherwise," said Dr. Warren Heffington, center director and associate professor of mechanical engineering. "But the Save Energy Now program invited larger manufacturers to apply for DOE services and we are able to work with some of those plants. If the big plants can save energy, that cuts down on energy costs for Texans." In March, the IAC visited Texas Instruments in Stafford and Freescale Semiconductor in Austin. The group visited a slaughterhouse in San Antonio in January and then an electronics plant in Houston. The IAC has visited Granite Mountain at Marble Falls and a salt mine in Hockley, where the team worked 1,500 feet below the surface. They've done newspapers, too -- the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. "It's a great program for Texas manufacturers," Heffington said "We always survey the manufacturers a few months after our visit, and they claim to implement 60 percent of our recommendations at $23 million a year in total savings over the years. Our goal is to have more than $60,000 for implemented savings for each plant." And it's not just the manufacturers who benefit from the IAC's work. The center typically employs about a dozen undergraduate and graduate students each semester. For clients, the students identify energy conservation projects; gather data in plants, including interviewing management and staff; calculate savings in terms of both energy and cost; provide conceptual designs and management techniques to capture the savings; analyze utility data; and write reports. The students work in teams of five or six, rotating leadership positions each time. Safety is always an important issue and each time one student is safety officer for the team as it works in a manufacturing plant. "The IAC is an excellent program for students because it's one of the more real-world experiences a student can have while at Texas A&M," Heffington said. "They work for pay, not a grade, and we're not tied to a semester schedule. The great thing about the program is the leadership and teamwork training." Andy Hanegan, an IAC employee and a senior mechanical engineering major, said, "We get a real world perspective of a variety of industries. We learn about conservation, things companies need to do to save energy and money." In its 20 years, IAC has done more than 515 visits to plants around Texas, and more than 200 students have gone on multiple assessments during that time. Each student goes on an average of 10 visits. "The true strength of the IAC is its student engineering employees," Heffington said. "Aggies do a really good job." The Industrial Assessment Center Program is a national program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, and 26 other centers at universities around the nation provide similar services.

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