UNIVERSITY CENTER (WWJ) — The phrase “hidden gem” is overused, and sometimes misused to describe things that are pretty much cubic zirconia.

But on Day Six of the 2013 Fall Tech Tour Monday, I found a real one in Saginaw Valley State University. Or maybe a reference to gold would be better, since Saginaw Valley is observing its 50th anniversary this year.

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This school, a lovely oasis of golden hardwoods in the farm fields along with Bay-Saginaw county border, may not pump out a lot of spinoff businesses. But it’s intimately involved in fostering economic development in what’s now called the Great Lakes Bay Region in many ways.

My day began bright and early in Pioneer Hall, with a meeting with Robert Tuttle, associate professor of mechanical engineering, at Saginaw Valley’s foundry. It’s a room with equipment to heat up to 100 pounds of steel to more than 3,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,300 degrees for aluminum) and pour it into molds so its properties can be tested.

The foundry conducts projects for industry and the government. Right now, Tuttle and his students are working on a project for the Office of Naval Research to reduce the size of individual grains, or crystals, in steel, which will help strengthen it. Tuttle says they’re blending in rare earth elements like cerium and lanthanum with steel in this effort. The foundry has also conducted sponsored research for the American Foundry Society and is working with an unnamed automaker on defect detection and prioritization in cast aluminum.

Tuttle joined Saginaw Valley in 2004 after getting his Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering from the University of Missouri at Rolla.


My next visit was a return trip to Saginaw Valley’s Independent Testing Lab, which works with companies large (Dow) and small (dozens) to test materials for a wide variety of properties.

The lab was started about 30 years ago by Tom Kullgren, former dean of Saginaw Valley’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology. Bruce Hart runs the lab today and hires undergraduates in chemistry, engineering and biology to work in the lab testing materials for companies.

Undergraduates with this kind of detailed lab experience are highly sought after by employers and graduate schools, Hart said.

“Every student who’s ever worked for me in this lab has either been accepted to grad school or had a job offer when they graduated,” Hart said, except for one student “who was too busy planning her wedding. She graduated in August, and didn’t get a job until October.” (Well, that’s not bad, considering.)

The lab has free access to Saginaw Valley’s classroom lab equipment when it’s not being used by students, adding to its capabilities.

“We tend to do testing that most other labs won’t do,” Hart said. “Mechanical properties, tensile strength, flexile strength. My students think it’s great, they get paid to break things.” And he remembers the day when he first started at the lab and was testing liquids for flammability, and his daughter told her teacher at a conference that somebody was paying her dad to set things on fire.

Kullgren, who’s only semi-retired and still teaches at Saginaw Valley, and Harry Leaver, executive director of SVSU’s Center for Business and Economic Development, said the main advantage of the Saginaw Valley lab is that it’s a one-stop shop — no bureaucracy, no red tape. And Hart has no teaching responsibilities, leaving him free to concentrate on the lab.

Hart said the lab does about $150,000 worth of tests a year, structuring its fees to break even in terms of salaries and materials used.

Among the more interesting now under way are testing wind turbine blade reinforcement materials for a Midland company, Fulcrum Composites, a spinout of Dow Chemical. The company has recently received a $1 million Phase II Small Business Innovation Research grant from the federal Department of Energy to develop the materials.

The lab also tested materials made by Bay City-based Gougeon Bros. — an aluminum and carbon fiber honeycomb sandwich that was used in the hull of America’s winning entry, Oracle Racing, in the recent America’s Cup sailboat races.

Hart’s newest toy is a $125,000 machine that will compress and pull materials being tested with up to 110,000 pounds of force. He uses that on the wind turbine materials — and on other stuff, like the replacement axle assembly being made for older Dodge Durangos by a Flint startup company, TDM International in Flint, that had to stand up to 60,000 pounds of force to get certified by Chrysler.

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Next up was a visit with David S. Karpovich, H.H. Dow Chair and Professor of Chemistry at Saginaw Valley, who’s now directing the school’s new Saginaw Bay Environmental Science Institute.

Using university funds, the school has purchased a beefy, $48,000 24-foot tri-pontoon boat that’s stable in deep water — it’s already stood up to four-foot waves — and a 250-horsepower outboard motor.

“What we wanted was something that could go out on the bay and be safe on the bay in big waves, but something that could also take care of our needs on the rivers for shallow water sampling,” Karpovich said.

After the university bought the boat, Bay Harbor Marina has donated a boat slip for it, and Cabela’s donated life jackets and other safety gear.

Karpovich said the boat will be used to study water quality issues on nutrient loading in the Saginaw Bay watershed and the bay itself. Included will be looking for answers to the bay’s awful muck, which is actually dead Cladophora algae.

A healthier and cleaner Saginaw Bay will benefit recreation and tourism in the region, and the Institute’s research is expected to boost agribusiness, too. Karpovich said more study is needed to determine just where the heavy nutrient loads in Saginaw Bay are coming from so they can be addressed in the most efficient, science-based manner possible.

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The institute is funded in part by a $400,000 grant from the University of Michigan Water Center.

Karpovich is a native of Caro in Michigan’s thumb, who went to Saginaw Valley for a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, then on to Michigan State for his Ph.D. He then did research work at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington before coming back to Saginaw Valley on the faculty in 1998. This is his fourth year as the H.H. Dow Endowed Chair in chemistry.

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Next, I spent an amazing half-hour with Brooks P. Byam, professor o mechanical engineering and director of Saginaw Valley’s motorsports and integrated industry programs.

Byam has been involved in nearly $400,000 in sponsored research projects since 2002 for a wide variety of companies. Students work in teams of three on the projects in a two-semester class their senior year. And now, Byam said, “I have more project opportunities than I have students.”

Byam joined Saginaw Valley’s faculty in 1998 after getting his Ph.D. from Michigan State.

Byam’s students’ projects have spanned an amazing variety of companies and industries. Like what? Like these:
* A machine to separate muck — dead algae — that washes up on Saginaw Bay’s shores from sand and water, requested by Duperon Corp. “The key is not disturbing the sand, because then it’s a dredging operation, which has a totally different permit process,” Byam said. The machine the students designed works fine — a “hydrocyclone” spins the water, the lighter muck comes out of the top, the heavier sand and water comes out of the bottom. Byam said Duperon is looking for funding to develop the device commercially.
* A redesign of roof anchors for Duro-Last Roofing that saved the comapny $750,000 a year.
* A plastic extrusion equipment cooling system for a plastic production line making coffee cup lids that meets American Institute of Baking standards and changes with temperatures inside the plant. The school has also designed a device to accurately count the coffee lids on the production line for the client, Huhtamaki, which makes a billion coffee cup lids a year.
* A portable outdoor crane that can move casting components weighing up to 500 pounds for Bernier Cast Metals Inc.
* A sealing system for Duro-Last for the crushable concrete “arrestor beds” at the ends of airport runways that stop aircraft that are about to run off runways into the surrounding countryside.
* An adaptor for CNC machines so they can be used to polish stones, requested by Kremin Inc.
* A multi-gear fishing reel that can retrieve fishing line at various speeds depending on its gear setting.
* A machine for making small quantities of prototype plastic bags, made for Dow Chemical Co.
* A study of the best designs for maximizing down forces on race car rear spoilers for D.H.P. Composites, a company started by a Saginaw Valley graduate.
* A system to stop moisture accumulation in clinical mechanical ventilation tubes for Covenant HealthCare’s Office of Innovation. The students involved have applied for a patent on the device, which involves a system of two tubes, inner and outer, and a heating system to make sure the temperature in the inside wall of the inner tube stays above the ambient dewpoint, which is what causes condensation inside the tube.
* A system for Nexteer Automotive, the huge Saginaw supplier of electronic power steering, to measure “rack rock” — essentially, steering wheel play.

Like I said, amazing stuff. If you want to use Saginaw Valley’s big brains as your R&D department, Byam’s email is


My last stop at Saginaw Valley was with Andrew M. Chubb, associate dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, and Stephanie A. Broust, an assistant professor of chemistry.

Chubb told me about SET’s programs — biology, chemistry, computer science and information systems, mathematical sciences, physics, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering. (Chubb joined Saginaw Valley in 2002 to teach organic chemistry.)

Broust got her undergrad degree from the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Ph.D. at Wayne State, and worked for Pfizer and Nalco before joining Saginaw Valley in 2010.

“We have a lot of companies that are seeking our graduates even before graduation,” Chubb said. “Dow and Dow Corning are very generous with their co-op programs. It’s a nice pipeline. And then our engineering program — Brooks (Byam) has more projects than we have students.”

Broust said she was attracted to Saginaw Valley because its relatively small size “really emphasizes collaboration. It’s just a short trip down the hallway to get some expertise you may not have and work together.”

And it’s a school that really emphasizes undergraduate research, they said.

“I think this is really exciting for the students, because a lot of graduate schools now expect you to have a year or two of research experience,” Broust said.

Added Chubb: “We consider it a strength that we don’t have graduate students. That means our faculty is working directly with undergraduates. That means our undergraduates are not merely the bottle washers for graduate students or postdocs. They are actually doing the research.”

The school has recently received a $250,000 Dow Corning Foundation grant to boost high schoolers’ and middle schoolers’ perceptions of science and the possibility of science careers. Broust said she’s a good example — she said she went through life convinced that she couldn’t aspire to grad school and an academic career until a mentor convinced her otherwise.

Leaver, meanwhile, emphasized how the Saginaw Bay-area (oops — Great Lakes Bay area) economy is recovering, and that translates into better job offers for Saginaw Valley students. Last Friday’s career fair had a record 80 employers at the school, he said, “and they are anxious to get our students.”

Saginaw Valley is now home to 10,200 students, of whom 2,700 live on campus, including 70 percent of the freshman class. Adding to the residential college atmosphere is a ring of apartment complexes just outside the campus.

The school also has more than 600 international students, with a heavy concentration from Saudi Arabia and China. It’s now concentrating more on Africa, establishing a sister college relationship with Pentecost University in Ghana, an African nation whose economy grew 14 percent last year. Also, a university in Taiwan, Ming Chuan, is establishing a 7,000-square-foot office at Saginaw Valley.


And after a terrific lunch at Saginaw Valley’s amazing main cafeteria — really more like a restaurant with a dozen food stations serving just about any kind of food imaginable, from Indian vegetarian curry to Mongolian barbecue to sophisticated salads to standard grill fare — I left Saginaw Valley and hit the road for Mt. Pleasant and Tuesday’s visit to Central Michigan University.

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I left the plains of the Great Lakes Bay more convinced than ever that SVSU is an indispensable part of the state’s economy. Many thanks to J.J. Boehm, Saginaw Valley director of media and community relations, for setting all this up.