Tapping talent

MnTAP and its interns help businesses realize energy savings

By Judy Woodward

If you had asked Laura Fletcher a few years back what she would be doing the summer after her senior year, chances are she wouldn't have said, "solving problems and saving thousands of dollars for a wastewater treatment plant." Yet, that's exactly what she did.

Now, as an Institute of Technology chemical engineering graduate, Fletcher works full-time as an engineer for the Metropolitan Council Environmental Services where she considers her work vital to the community.

Fletcher's foray into the somewhat unglamorous subject of sewage was through a summer internship at St. Paul's Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Twin Cities' main sewage treatment facility. She got her internship through the University's Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP), where she was one of eight college juniors and seniors chosen to spend the summer of 2008 working with Minnesota companies on specific waste-reduction and energy savings projects.

Each year, MnTAP receives more than a thousand requests from Minnesota businesses looking to reduce waste and improve energy efficiency. Last year, the program helped companies realize energy savings of more than $3 million. MnTAP staff often visit participating companies to make on-site evaluation of their concerns, and when they do, says Krysta Larson, MnTAP Intern Program coordinator, they often identify projects where summer interns could be useful.

Companies are carefully matched with student interns who have appropriate academic backgrounds. "Of the roughly 70 students who apply for positions each summer, the best candidates 'float to the top' through the interview process," Larson says. "They must have excelled in the technical coursework, but they also must have initiative and creativity. No one is going to hold their hand, and they must be comfortable in a manufacturing setting."

Each student is paid a stipend and assigned both a staff mentor at MnTAP and a supervisor at the company. Advisers and supervisors act as resources and backup support; however, interns have full control over the day-to-day details of their projects.

"We're getting, very inexpensively, someone who is dedicated full-time to just one project," says Mike Costello, who has supervised interns at a medical device firm, Aritech, Inc. in Plymouth, Minnesota, and at a previous employer. "The students get an idea of how their education will apply in the real world. That connection fuels their enthusiasm."

Here's a look at three U students who had internships through MnTAP.

Laura Fletcher

Both her MnTAP mentor, Karl DeWahl, and her supervisor at Wastewater Board Services, Brad Gehring, agree that Laura Fletcher was academically prepared for the tricky job of calculating the optimal air flow for the giant blowers that provide oxygen for the decomposition process at St. Paul's Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The plant treats 185 million gallons of wastewater daily and the aeration process accounts for more than half of the plant's daily electricity usage a cost of approximately $450,000 per month. If Fletcher were able to calculate the most efficient way to utilize the giant blowers, the cost savings could be substantial.

DeWahl, who describes his support role as steering a middle course "between letting interns learn, yet keeping them from falling into the abyss," characterizes Fletcher as "fairly advanced," even considering her status as a recent Institute of Technology graduate.

Fletcher was adept at bringing a theoretical understanding to her project, but she may have been even more pleased by some of the practical knowledge she acquired during the course of the summer.

"The project was so different from class work," she says, explaining that lab exercises however well-designed invariably have a predetermined, 'right' answer. "When you intern, you know that no one has tackled this project before."

By luck, one of her laboratory problems from a course gave her precisely the right preparation for her project. "I had a lab on blowers and air flow meters," Fletcher says. "It was a small-scale version of what I did as an intern."

Thanks to her mastery of the relevant calculations, Fletcher was ultimately able to suggest reconfigurations of the blowers that would save the plant upwards of $60,000 in annual electricity costs.

Maureen Holler

When Maureen Holler, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering, learned she would be interning with Aritech, Inc., she couldn't have been more pleased. Her assignment was to reduce waste in the packaging and preparation of the delivery system for an implantable device called the Watchman, which helps prevent potentially life-threatening blood clots from forming in the heart.

"I was going to work on something that was keeping people from having strokes," she realized. "How cool is that?"

Holler quickly zeroed in on three areas that could improve the packaging system. From her perspective, one advantage of her internship was the opportunity to take ownership of the project. "Before this, I've worked on other people's projects, but this one was mine," she explains. "I came in not knowing anything about plastics, and I had to work with outside vendors, do research. I learned how to ask the right questions. It was trial by fire, but I loved being thrown in."

Holler's supervisor Mike Costello, director of operations for Aritech, quickly recognized her efforts. "There was a real alignment of the planets on this one," he jokes. Although some of her ideas were tabled for a later date, Holler's suggestions for packaging modifications were "instantly implemented," he says. "She had the support of the entire company on this one."

Mat Waddell

For Mat Waddell, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, one of the most valuable parts of his experience as a summer intern at Twin City Die Castings was what he learned about himself. After his internship, the Minneapolis company, a producer of metal parts, offered him a permanent job after graduation.

Although he is only an undergraduate, Waddell knew he had made a significant impact on the company's bottom line. Yet, he decided he will aim for graduate studies in mechanical engineering instead.

"I loved the experience at Twin City," he says. "But ... I can use the skills I've gained in a different way."

Waddell's project was to identify ways to save energy at the manufacturing facility. Energy efficiency engineer Dao Yang, his supervisor, found Waddell to be a quick study on the job.

"He's a self-starter. Very determined and focused," Yang says. "I'm very busy at work, so I gave him a quick overview, and Mat was able to pick up from where I left off."

Waddell turned out to have natural ability as a project manager. He started out by conducting a thorough energy audit of Twin City's facility and an assessment of which areas could realize the biggest energy savings. Some of his proposed solutions were as simple as replacing an ill-fitting door on the main furnace and posting signs reminding workers to replace covers on dip wells.

Other improvements Waddell suggested were designed to reduce high temperature and increase airflow in the compressor room, where the large machines that power the manufacturing processes are kept.

In his final project presentation, Waddell estimated Twin City could save more than $100,000 on its furnace and compressor operations if his suggestions were fully implemented.

"Mat found at least 15 projects that would give us possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy savings," Yang said. "His ideas and work paid for his time here."

From Inventing Tomorrow, a publication of the Institute of Technology