An industry with a view


The machines at the AMP Lab are used to make metal orthopedic devices, and long and slender round components for various uses. Courtesy Autocam Medical

Downtown Grand Rapids pedestrians soon will be given a window into advanced machining and robotics projects at a $3 million lab that opened last year.

Movers brought in several large pieces of equipment on Sept. 3 and 4 to the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Lab at Western Michigan University, or AMP Lab @ WMU. The machines are so large the glass had to be removed from the lab’s street-level windows to lower them down to an open area that will serve as a makerspace for medical devices and possibly other types of products, with the equipment being run by expert technicians.

The AMP Lab — which occupies the first two floors of the five-story downtown Grand Rapids regional location of WMU, at 200 Ionia Ave. SW — is a collaboration of education partners WMU and Grand Rapids Community College and several area manufacturers, including Autocam Medical and donors Amway, Cascade Engineering, Flexco, Haworth, Herman Miller, Paragon Die and Engineering, and Rockwell Automation.

The upper floor of the AMP lab contains classroom space and an apprentice tooling and machine lab, where GRCC and WMU students learn how to program machines to cut and form metal components. Eventually, graduates will use their newfound skills in all sorts of manufacturing applications, but until then, the classes practice making chess boards and pieces, lightsabers — even various-sized replicas of Mjölnir, the hammer of Thor.

A section of the lab’s lower level, which can be seen looking down from the mezzanine or from the street, is reserved for the machines brought in this month.

John Kennedy IV, general manager at Autocam Medical, said the new equipment includes a five-axis mill — which is about the size of a truck and is used to make metal orthopedic devices such as ankle replacements, shoulder implants, hip sockets and trauma plates for stabilizing broken bones — as well as a Swiss lathe, or sliding headstock lathe, which is the size of a small car and can make long and slender round components for various uses.

The machines are designed to make a wide variety of fairly small components that could be up to around 6 inches wide by 6 inches high, Kennedy said.

On the mezzanine overlooking the lower level, Autocam also brought in a 3D metal printer that can print almost fully done objects that can then quickly be finished by another machine.

All three pieces of equipment will be used for medical device prototyping for Autocam Medical’s customers up to 20 hours each day, as well as for collaborating with WMU for engineering research and helping engineering students develop their ideas.

“This will be our prototype and educational development space,” Kennedy said.

He said students will start off their learning in the apprentice lab and classroom, then those who eventually have more complex ideas they want to prototype can come to the makerspace to work with the expert technicians.

“They can bring their concept down here and say, ‘I have this great idea; can you guys help me figure out how to make this?’ and have them learn about a little more advanced machining principles than what they would learn in the apprentice lab,” he said.

Kennedy said in addition to working on prototyping for students and medical device customers, Autocam might potentially work with other nonmedical device customers through its partnership with Western to help develop their ideas, if the timing is right and it’s a good fit.

“We would be certainly open to figuring out what that relationship looks like and how we would work through something like that if somebody was interested in trying to have something made,” he said.

WMU also eventually plans to install two robotics projects on the AMP Lab mezzanine that will be visible to pedestrians, Kennedy said.

Currently, a demo robot from JR Automation is on display on the mezzanine, and it’s programmed to play Jenga for the watching public.

One of the goals of giving the machines a prominent and visible spot is to raise the profile of advanced manufacturing in downtown Grand Rapids and, hopefully, draw people to skilled trades careers, Kennedy said.

“We have a significant customer interest in growth, and as fast as we can bring in equipment and gear up facilities, we need people for all of those roles,” Kennedy said.

“That’s why we put this in this spot with trying to get the visibility as much as we can so that people can see what (manufacturing) is.”

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