Metal Casting Center offers a 'truly unique' experience

Hidden in a corner of downtown Waterloo, just a few blocks away from some of the city’s most popular entertainment attractions, sits a nondescript brick building that’s home to Cedar Valley TechWorks. Most people wouldn’t guess that the building, located 15 minutes away from the UNI campus, is not only a main hub for UNI students studying metal casting, but also a nationally recognized center for innovation in the manufacturing industry.

Students pours metal at UNI's Metal Casting Center.Indeed, the UNI Metal Casting Center (MCC) is a growing resource for the UNI community and beyond, serving students, the Cedar Valley community and the manufacturing industry at large. The MCC has grown so much, its operations have expanded into two different locations—a mini foundry focused on metal casting, located on campus in UNI’s Industrial Technology Center, and the location housed on the TechWorks Campus, which focuses more on additive manufacturing and producing molds for metal casting.

Together, the two MCC locations offer UNI students a variety of tools and training to prepare them for work in the industry. Students get hands-on experience and work closely with a variety of community partners to help develop new technologies that often become industry standard. It’s no wonder the MCC was just awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

“We’ve been expanding, growing, adding more students, adding more professional staff to mentor those students and making a bigger impact in the industry,” said Jerry Thiel, director of the MCC. “This funding gives us a unique opportunity … to bring a level of attention, technology development and support for the technology that we haven’t seen before.”

More specifically, the grant will help expand the MCC’s 3-D printing. The MCC had already set a record for having the largest 3-D sand printer in the continent when it obtained the six-ton ExOne S-Max Sand Printer in 2014. This grant will allow the MCC to further upgrade equipment, giving students the chance to work with new materials and develop technologies to help innovate the industry.

“We’ve actually developed technology that the industry uses everyday,” said Thiel. “Five years ago, when we first bought the additive manufacturing 3-D printer, there were only five to six printers in the United States ... now there’s over 40.”

This grant will allow the center to continue that kind of industry-wide innovation—and according to Thiel, students are an integral part of that. “Students have always been one of the top technology transfer mechanisms,” he said. “Students learning the latest in technology and then taking that to the workplace.”

For Thiel, leading that kind of innovation is what makes the center—and its students—so special. “I think the greatest joy is being able to make a difference in an entire industry,” he said. “We make a difference in the manufacturing industry by developing technology that no one’s ever developed before. That is truly unique.”

As for students, that unique experience leads to post-grad success—according to Thiel, students who graduate with an emphasis in metal casting have a 100% job placement rate. Nathaniel Bryant, a graduate assistant at the MCC who’s worked at the center for five years, has already secured a job in the industry, and he credits the center for his success.

“The MCC has been the most beneficial educational experience I've gotten from UNI,” Bryant said. “My practical experience in foundry equipment and technology, in conjunction with the metal casting classes offered at UNI, helped me compete for a material scientist [position] at a minerals company, which I will begin following graduation. I owe it all the the great people at the MCC. Without them I wouldn't be anywhere near as successful as I am now.”