Strips of carbon fiber used at Automated Dynamics can be found in everything from the drive shaft in a helicopter to the drill used for oil exploration.
The Schenectady-based manufacturer now uses an intense blast of electrically heated nitrogen gas to temper these fibers so they are more durable and can be molded. Only this blast — ranging up to 1,000 degrees Centigrade — is extremely inefficient, sometimes wasting nearly 70 percent of the energy produced by the hot gas.
“A lot of that heat is wasted during the process,” said Zachary August, a project engineer for the company.
With lasers, however, the tempering process is much different. The focused light beam can manipulate the carbon fiber just like the hot gas, but in a far more efficient and expedient manner.
“What might take many hours and many days to create, we can reduce dramatically,” said August as he demonstrated the experimental machine Automated Dynamics has been tweaking for more than a year at its manufacturing facility on Front Street.
Now Automated Dynamics is preparing to move this innovative machine from its laboratories into the production line and possibly for sale to other businesses — a process that will be made possible with a $400,000 state grant. The company was among three in the Capital Region to receive grants through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s Innovation in the Manufacturing of Clean Energy Technologies program Thursday.
Also receiving grants were ThermoAura Inc. of Troy, which was awarded $393,000 to help scale up production of its heat-to-electricity technology to a commercial level; and Ecovative Design of Green Island, which was awarded $350,000 to improve the energy efficiency and productivity of manufacturing its product, a packaging foam based on farm waste. All three companies are matching the grant with funds or in-kind services.
Francis Murray Jr., NYSERDA’s president and chief executive officer, said the grants are aimed at bolstering innovations in clean-energy technology and aiding companies that are vested in reducing the energy needed in the manufacturing process. He said the three companies awarded the funding offer examples of how such investments can help them remain competitive.
“All of these businesses are working on ways to make their products more efficiently, which is where we come in,” he told a gathering of company officials and area dignitaries gathered at the manufacturing facility Thursday. “We all know it’s a foot race — whichever state gets out there ahead is going to win the jobs of the future.”
For Automated Dynamics, the new technology would have a massive impact on its production process. August said the laser utilizes roughly 95 percent of the energy it consumes in the production process — a far departure from what is wasted with the gas torches the company has used for nearly three decades.
The new technique reduces energy consumption during manufacturing by more than 60 percent. The speed of the process also will allow the small company of 32 workers to build materials in shapes that weren’t possible before.
“Using our 30 years of experience and this new technology, we think this small company can offer a product that can compete with the largest of composite manufacturers,” said Robert Langone, the company’s president. “Thanks to NYSERDA’s funding, we can now move forward with the next generation of composite production, while saving energy at the same time.”