The Rochester Institute of Technology is generally a pretty happy place for tinkering-minded engineers to be. But the National Center for Remanufacturing & Resource Recovery (or NC3R) must be the kind of place that feels like the waiting room to engineer heaven. It's an outpost on the edge of the western New York university campus, a hybrid applied research lab that's almost like a consulting firm, dedicated to the proposition of getting expensive things and breaking them apart.
In one room, you'll find inkjet and toner cartridges stacked in boxes floor to ceiling. Go out that door, take a couple turns, and you're staring at a massive Navy A-6E Intruder jet. Past that, through some more doors (after you've passed an enormous working printing press), you're in an electrical engineer's lab, where the tolerance levels of oscilloscopes and micrometers are being tested. This is what passes for hallway banter: "Hey, we just started the enzymatic digestion of the celluloid."
It's all in the service of understanding remanufacturing, a process in which used products are reclaimed, cleaned, inspected, and put back together to make another product that's "like new" or better. Amid all the seemingly arcane testing and conceptual work, NC3R Director Nabil Nasr and his staff are actually serving big corporate clients, helping them to get a better sense of how the components in their products actually perform over time.
THROUGH THE WRINGER. In traditional remanufacturing, "You understand the process that you use to make the component, so you can predict the quality of the product," Nasr says. But "when you bring a product back through remanufacturing channels, everything is a suspect."
For instance, Staples (SPLS) does all of the quality assurance for its remanufactured ink and toner cartridge at RIT. What does that mean? The humble cartridge, before RIT will release it back into the real world, must endure an altitude chamber, a weathering chamber, a "Q-sun Xenon Test chamber," and an "ozone destruct module," among other indignities.
The payoff: Staples can use that data to make products that will last for many more life cycles. "It's the company that understands where the defects are…that makes the difference," explains Andy Harlan, the NC3R's industrial programs manager.
AN EDIBLE BLAST. One of the biggest problems that remanufacturers face is how to clean things. Soap and water just won't work on a grimy, used diesel engine, for example. And while a chemical bath might remove the dirt, it might also disturb the metal itself. So at RIT, they test guns that fire rapid shots of steel to scrape gunk off engine blocks, as well as ceramic pellet degreasers and baking soda blasters.
Baking soda? In fact, those blasters are used to "remanufacture" Luxus coffee canisters, the tall urns that carry branded labels on them, like the ones at airport Starbucks. Whenever Starbucks changes its look, baristas can't manually change the labels. The glue is too sticky, and pasting a second label on top of the original one eventually results in puckering. So RIT engineers strip most of the coating off with a heat gun.
When a "high pressure aqueous blast" didn't get the last bits of glue off, pelting it at a high velocity with baking soda did the trick, says Bob German, a senior staff engineer at the NC3R. "It's an edible blast medium," German chuckles.
DEFENSE DOLLARS. But ink cartridges and coffee urns are small projects, relatively speaking. The NC3R's biggest sponsor is the Defense Dept.—hence, the Intruder jet. Nasr's team is studying the material aging of the actuator, the hydraulics, and the fuselage. To examine the hull, a 3D model was scanned into a computer using a laser-tipped robotic arm. The data learned will be applied to the EA-6B Prowler jet.
Nasr, in fact, says the Defense Dept. is the biggest remanufacturer in the world, and estimates that the Pentagon spends about $15 billion every year to keep its fleets up and running. Another example: There's a light armored vehicle fresh from the battlefield at the NC3R. The whole line was supposed to have been retired in 2003, Nasr says, but now it will have to last for another 25 years. Remanufacturing is vastly much more cost effective than ordering up new combat vehicles. To illustrate, Nasr points out that replacing a driveshaft ruined by sand with a remanufactured one would cost about $50, vs. about $700 for new.
Most companies and organizations that go to the NC3R for research help are, usually, ultimately motivated by how much money remanufacturing can save them. But Nasr is keenly aware, and extremely excited, by the environmentally friendly nature of the process. In fact, he's planning to launch a PhD program specifically dedicated to sustainable engineering. "The opportunities that we have," Nasr says, "for material conservation, for recycling, for energy conservation are tremendous." By Brian Hindo