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From Classroom to Factory Floor

January 29, 2016

Jill Engel-Cox, Ph.D., Clean Energy Manufacturing Analysis Center

Students examine factory equipment.

I was delighted to learn that the U.S. Department of Energy's program of Industrial Assessment Centers (IACs) celebrates 40 years of service to industry this year. The IAC program train teams of university students at 24 centers across the United States to work with small- and medium-sized manufacturing facilities to reduce energy use, reduce material waste, implement clean energy technologies, and save money.

When I was an engineering student at Colorado State University, I participated in a Waste Minimization Assessment Center, which merged with the IAC program. It was a defining experience for me in the value that engagement between industry and students can bring to both parties.

For each assessment, IAC student teams get to walk through a plant floor, talk with line workers and plant managers, quantify the energy usage of the operating equipment, document the industrial process, and then design process and equipment improvements that actually work and save money. Since its founding in 1976, IAC student teams have conducted over 16,000 assessments. A typical assessment identifies more than $130,000 in potential annual savings opportunities, and manufacturers typically implement changes to realize nearly $50,000 of the potential savings during the first year following the assessment. Collectively, IAC recommendations have the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars through process and environmental improvements.

The program's longevity is a testament to the value it brings to both industry and the engineering students who participate. Small- and medium-sized businesses often have few resources to spare for this sort of engineering-based assessment and they gain access to the expertise that can reduce their environmental impact and improve their financial bottom line. And students gain real-life experience in manufacturing facilities that they will apply throughout their careers.

Since my student days, I have incorporated many of the principles of the IAC program in classes I have taught and projects I have conducted with industry. So happy 40th birthday, Industrial Assessment Centers. May you have many more years of uniting students and businesses to improve the energy productivity of manufacturing.

Jill Engel-Cox is director of the Clean Energy Manufacturing Analysis Center.