Worcester's Best-Kept Secret: Engineering Help from WPI

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

GO TEAM: From left, project advisor Raymond R. Hagglund, WPI professor of mechanical engineering, joins WPI students Todd Columbus, Steve O'Connell, William Taylor and Kristina Lexth at New Ward Valve in Manchaug, Mass.
Photo by Larisa Schelkin

WORCESTER, Mass. - Mark Fisher runs a small company with all of three employees in the Manchaug section of Sutton, Mass. A graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, having earned bachelor's, master's and MBA degrees over the years, Fisher is also a man with a mission. He wants other small businesspeople to learn one of Worcester's best-kept secrets for getting engineering help through his three-time alma mater.

As president of New Ward Valve Co. (www.newwardvalve.com), the Shrewsbury resident oversees the manufacture of valves and strainers. "We make a patented line of check valves and strainers, both used for industrial processes," Fisher said. "Just recently we got approved at NASA."

Shortly after the company got off the ground in April 1999, Fisher contacted WPI for help. As a graduate of the university, he knew that each student is required to complete major projects during their studies.

"My company started working with WPI students this past fall," he said. "We had two teams of students, both advised by Professor (Raymond R.) Hagglund." The four WPI students involved in the projects more than doubled the number of New Ward Valve employees on the spot.

Fisher is so pleased with the results that he has planned several new proposals for WPI student projects this fall. The two initial projects were completed in early May by four mechanical engineering majors, all of whom graduated from the university later that month. At the same time, the students fulfilled their WPI-required Major Qualifying Project, thanks to New Ward Valve.

"Design of a Solenoid Operated Check Valve" was completed by Steven O'Connell, the son of Kelly O'Connell of Clinton, Mass., and Todd W. Columbus, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Columbus of Northbridge, Mass.

Kristina S. Lexth, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. Lexth of North Reading, Mass., and William R. Taylor, the son of Evelyn Taylor of New Ipswich, N.H., finished "Design of 3-Inch and 4-Inch Check Valves."

Both offered valuable help to this small but ambitious operation. "A lot of schools have this element in it, but WPI has been the leader," Fisher noted. "A lot of colleges are playing a catch-up game for something that WPI has become known for."

For students, it's an equal opportunity. Kristina Lexth, who works now as a mechanical engineer at Raytheon Co. in Marlboro, attributes her success at her first job out of college in part to her experience at New Ward Valve.

"I couldn't imagine coming to work and not having that experience," she said. "The experience is great for preparing you for work, since it's real-life work, and companies look for that. They like to know you can talk the lingo."

Her experience at a smaller operation like New Ward Valve actually focused her attention on the big picture. Too often, she noted, students just work on a tiny cog in the big machine.

"Working for a small company was especially good because you could see your efforts put right to work," she said. "People already had orders in while we were designing the valves."

Another Worcester business, Kennedy Die Castings Inc., saw positive results from a project titled "Molten Metal Delivery," completed in May by Kevin Delaney, a senior and the son of Mr. and Mrs. John E. Delaney of Durham, Conn.; Melanie Khederian, a member of the class of 2000 and the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Khederian of Waltham, Mass.; and Sean McMillen, a member of the class of 2000 and the son of Mr. and Mrs. George McMillen of Worcester.

The project aimed to solve a problem with the delivery of molten metal to individual die cast machines. The WPI students designed a detection system that would enable metal handlers to gauge when furnaces are running low on metal. Since each machine contained a programmable controller designed to manage machine functions and collect data, the students wrote a program to count machine cycles and calculate the volume of molten metal.

"An alerting system was next wired into the level detection program," the students wrote in their final report. "The alerting system consists of a set of three lights, red, yellow and green. If the green light is on, the level of metal is within three inches of being full. When the yellow light is on, the level is between three and six inches below the full line, and when the red light is on, the level is below six inches of the full line."

The system saves time and increases efficiency, and the team received top marks from the company and their WPI advisor, Professor Hagglund. As both local projects indicate, WPI's Major Qualifying Project requirement can put students to work in ways that may benefit small businesspeople.

"The students can take advantage of working on real-world problems locally," Fisher said. "They don't necessarily have to travel across the country. And companies can have research and development projects completed or engineering problems solved without hiring a staff of engineers. At the same time, they can check out the students as potential hires!"

WPI, founded in 1865, is renowned for its project-based curriculum. Under the WPI Plan, students integrate classroom studies with research projects conducted on campus and around the world.