For the past 26 years, mechanical engineering students at Colorado State University have helped small- and medium-sized manufacturing firms save an average of $50,000 a year through increased energy efficiency—a university program unlike any other in the state, CSU officials said.

That work will continue for another four years because the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Industrial Technologies Program has awarded Colorado State $1.2 million to help companies improve their energy efficiency and provide engineering students valuable experience with manufacturing processes. The DOE program is a national effort to improve U.S. manufacturing competitiveness.

The university is one of only 24 around the country participating in the DOE program and the only one in Colorado. Colorado State's Industrial Assessment Center serves a five-state region—Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

In 1985, Colorado State faculty and students started visiting manufacturers to assess energy use and suggest cost-saving measures, long before companies were as focused on energy efficiency and conservation measures as they are today.

“We exist to help companies make their products more efficiently so they save money in the manufacturing process,” said professor Allan Kirkpatrick, director of the program at Colorado State, along with Michael Kostrzewa, assistant director and senior research associate in mechanical engineering. “We spend a day on the manufacturing floor, examine their energy use in the overall manufacturing process, then make various measurements to show how much electric and natural gas energy they’re consuming.”

The hands-on experience is valuable training for students and demanded by employers, Kirkpatrick said.

National studies have shown that industry leaders are concerned that students don’t know how things are made and work, Kirkpatrick said. “We have students really well trained as scientists, but hands-on engineering is something that we as educators need to also be focusing on. This is part of Colorado State’s land-grant mission to take useful knowledge into the community and to make our students more competitive in the workforce.”

The DOE grant provides enough funding for students to assist with 12 to 15 companies a year. Companies are assured confidentiality as part of their participation.

After reviewing student assessments, most company officials spend the money necessary to make changes to operations – things as simple as installing energy-efficient motors, lighting, skylights and upgrading control systems. More advanced measures include installing solar thermal and PV systems and revamping production lines.

In addition to identifying potential cost savings up front, students follow up with employers to see what changes have been made after their assessment. About 70 percent of companies surveyed say they made changes based on student recommendations.

Kirkpatrick expects students to know how things work because that’s how he learned—through his first summer job at Kodak. As a student, he helped develop a mechanical system that placed the lids on Kodak’s 35mm film canisters.

Kirkpatrick’s research focuses on thermal science, including energy-efficient buildings and internal combustion engines.
The DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy supports the Industrial Technologies Program to help strengthen America's energy security, environmental quality, and economic vitality through public-private partnerships.