Mechanical Engineering Renaissance in Mahoning Valley

By Joseph Chapman

Center Street Technologies is an additive manufacturing company in the Youngstown Area offering mechanical engineering opportunities to students. Photo courtesy of Matthew Heffinger

Youngstown State University will receive millions of dollars in federal defense funding included in the recently passed fiscal year 2021 defense spending bill. The $10 million in funds will sponsor research in new, advanced manufacturing techniques for building hypersonic weapons. These weapons travel at five times the speed of light. $5 million was allocated to research and develop new hybrid manufacturing techniques for rapid tooling and high-temperature materials. This is part of an ongoing collaboration between Oak Ridge National Labs and YSU.

Youngstown is home to the federal government’s center for additive manufacturing known as America Makes. In support of its growth, $37 million has been acquired for the research and development funding of large scale additive manufacturing equipment and training programs.

Recently a plan was announced for two research labs from the University of Texas at El Paso to expand here at YSU as a part of America Makes. Eric MacDonald, adjunct professor at YSU, discussed how he recently took on another position as a mechanical engineering professor at UTEP, and while he was not directly involved in making this collaboration happen, said he is excited to see what comes of it.

“It’s just strange — of the two places I could have come and gone to, are so closely engaged, but I think there’s a really promising future for that partnership between the cities and between the Congress, people and between the universities,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of people in Youngstown that are going to be coming to learn about the technology here [at UTEP]. So that we are both helping each other. It’s a great collaboration. … This new money is going to lead to a renaissance in the Mahoning Valley.”

The expansion of additive manufacturing led to local opportunities for YSU’s STEM students, such as the additive manufacturing facility Center Street Technologies in Youngstown. Alexander Fitzgerald, who graduated from YSU with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2018, recruited Matthew Heffinger as an intern after working with him in YSU’s additive manufacturing department. Now, both work as additive engineers for the company.

Fitzgerald discussed the aforementioned renaissance in manufacturing in Youngstown.

“I would say that all the business here in Youngstown, we’re looking to not only create cutting-edge technology here, but we’re also trying our very best to figure out how we equip that workforce. So we’re going to create futuristic technology. But we also want to create a lot of job opportunities in this area,” he said. “We’re not only doing this, to just say that we did it, we’re doing this so that we can bring [Youngstown] back to the manufacturing powerhouse that it once was.”

Heffinger made sure to emphasize the importance of getting involved in the job search while still in school.

“When I was [at YSU], I would always kind of imagine myself having to kind of move away from the area to get to be involved in something cutting-edge or something really interesting,” he said. “And, by just getting involved on campus, and looking for research opportunities and stuff like that, I was able to kind of stumble upon this opportunity that is here but you kind of just don’t really realize it as a student …  I think they’d be surprised how close [the opportunities] are to Youngstown.”

Pedro Cortes, assistant professor in the materials science and engineering program, said the students are the ones who stand to benefit the most from all the different initiatives YSU is pursuing, such as competitions with the NFL to make safer helmets to 3D printing ceramics on the International Space Station.

“The most important thing we just want to mention is that we’re bringing the students. So those are the one that actually have the real benefit. So the students are exposed to these options and they can go outside and they can talk about what they’re doing and YSU. … That’s the payoff at the end of the day,” he said.

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