SUNY New Paltz mechanical engineering program continues to grow

The new 19,000-square-foot Engineering Innovation Hub on the SUNY New Paltz campus is scheduled for completion next year. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

This past spring 2018 semester, 203 enrolled undergraduates were majors in SUNY New Paltz’s program in mechanical engineering. That’s a very robust number considering that a major in that subject was first announced only in October 2014. The program graduated its first class of about 25 students this year. Next year 40 or 50 should graduate. About half the graduates started the program as freshmen, and the other half transferred from other schools. 

Science and engineering dean Dan Freedman expects the enrollment numbers for the program in mechanical engineering to level off. The number of majors in mechanical engineering at the school now exceeds the number of majors in the long-established programs in electrical engineering and computer engineering combined. 

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The overall proportion of undergraduates majoring in science and engineering at the New Paltz school has increased from eleven percent in 2012 to 15 percent this past spring semester. That proportion’s likely to continue to increase, predicted Freedman. In the last few years, he said, more than 20 percent of new students have expressed interest in majoring in science, technology, engineering or math.

“Mechanical engineering continues to be a growing program in the field of engineering due to rapidly changing technologies and expanding industrial needs,” explained the school’s undergraduate catalogue. Mechanical engineers are now highly sought after for a variety of purposes

Dean Freedman reeled off a long list of existing manufacturing companies in the region, mostly mid-sized, with which the school’s engineering program has collaborated and to which the school has sent interns and new employees. New Paltz engineering graduates have had little trouble finding jobs in the region, Freedman said. The school has a good reputation. “We are connected,” he said. “People trust academic institutions. We work with everyone.”

Freedman is convinced that 3D manufacturing will continue to have a major impact “on any industry where you make things.” In manufacturing, it’s a design tool, he says, applicable to a very wide variety of problems and a variety of situations. 

The college’s 19,000-square-foot Engineering Innovation Hub, currently ahead of schedule for a 2019 completion date, is under construction near the Science Building in which Freedman’s office is located. The new structure will house the school’s Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center (HVAMC), including its collection of Stratasys 3D printers and other lab equipment. 

In May the Dyson Foundation awarded the SUNY New Paltz Foundation $500,000 for the school’s purchase of 3D metal printing equipment, wax printing and continuous-build capability. The direct-metal printer, manufactured by a Boston-area tech startup called Desktop Metal, fabricates metal parts and structures at a fraction of the production cost of previously available technology. Desktop Metal is a venture-capital favorite.

“We have heard from regional companies and entrepreneurs since we started that metal is necessary for many areas and applications,” explained Freedman in a May SUNY press release. “Adding the Desktop Metal printing technology to the HVAMC will dramatically shorten the time and cost associated with designing new products, giving the mid-Hudson region a resource that will be a competitive advantage for many local companies.” The new technology will produce both prototypes and final-use parts at a much lower cost than was possible with previously available technology. HVAMC and 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys also expect to create a printing system which automates the process of removing a completed build from a printer and starting the next. 

You may remember SUNY New Paltz commencement speaker Bre Pettis. The cofounder and former CEO of Brooklyn-based MakerBot was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters (L.H.D.) on May 17, 2015, “the highest honor the State University of New York can bestow upon an individual.” The degree was approved by the SUNY board of trustees.  

Pettis helped propel SUNY New Paltz to the forefront of 3D printing technology when SUNY New Paltz and MakerBot launched the nation’s first MakerBot Innovation Center at the college back then. “Bre’s partnership has been fundamental in our success to date in building our 3D design, fabrication and printing initiative that is proving so exciting for our students and New York State, if not the entire nation,” college president Donald Christian said at the time.

Pettis has been through many changes since he left Stratasys, the larger 3D printing company to which he sold MakerBot in June 2013 in a deal worth $604 million. So has the 3D printing industry for which Pettis was a pioneer, a soothsayer and a poster child.

Early this year, Pettis-owned Bre and Co. LLC paid $1.65 million for four vacant properties just east of the train tracks along the Hudson River in Peekskill. Pettis himself lives in Croton-on-Hudson a few miles to the south. He told a local journalist he liked Peekskill’s diversity. It’s on the rail line, it’s affordable, and it’s about 35 miles from New York City.

Late in 2016, freelance writer Andrew Zaleski’s article “The 3D Printing Revolution That Wasn’t” in Wired magazine focused on Pettis. Zaleski recounted the giddy days six or seven years before in which the “maker revolution” was going to turn into a multi-billion-dollar activity that would revolutionize manufacturing. One of the revolution’s heroes, Pettis had become a kind of hacker king.

It was not to be. “But the second Industrial Revolution led by the Everyman Tycoon armed with a well of ideas and a trusty MakerBot never came to pass,” wrote Zaleski. MakerBots didn’t sell as well as expected. There were production problems, service problems, marketing problems, organizational issues. Competitors entered the business. Sales slowed, and slowed again.

In 2015 MakerBot initiated a couple of rounds of major layoffs. Parent company Stratasys seems to have stabilized at sales of about $640 million a year, managing to turn a large loss into a smaller one. It stock remains in the doldrums, however, its shares selling for $19 compared to the $136 at which it peaked four years ago.

Pettis, meanwhile, had stepped down as CEO in September 2014 and sold his stock, leaving with a subsidiary called Bold Machines. Pettis later disbanded Bold Machines. He started Bre & Co., a maker of 3D “heirloom-quality gifts” such as origami watches, pens and teapots operating out of a Pettis-owned building at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But his goal, according to Zaleski, remained “to show that 3D projects could be used for major products, not just trinkets.” Pettis bought Bantam Tools, a small Berkeley milling-machine maker that he now plans to move to Peekskill.

Expectations for the industry went awry because of a lack of understanding of what 3D printers could do. “We had this great maker-focused marketing message, but 90 percent of what we were selling wasn’t to makers,” entrepreneur Danielle Applestone explained to Wired last September. “You want everyone to feel how empowering it is to have this tool, so you want to sell for everyone. But it’s not really for everyone.” Applestone sold her company, Other Machines, to Pettis.

Stratasys too is pursuing a changed vision under its post-Pettis leadership. It now aspires to put a desktop 3D printer in every classroom and on the desk of every designer and engineer. Freedman thinks Stratasys is positioned to dominate the expanding market for high-performance 3D printers “for a very long time.”

Again according to Wired, over 5000 schools across the country have MakerBot printers. One of them is of course SUNY New Paltz, now eager to add a Desktop Metal printer to its fleet of MakerBot-Stratasys 3D printers and other equipment at the Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center.

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