Proof of Concept

Imagine a machine that crawls up a fir tree, trimming branches as it goes. Or an energy harvesting system based on changes in water pressure. Or a chain saw testing device that can safely simulate an accident in which a broken chain whips through the air, threatening workers. 

Welcome to the Prototype Development Lab. “We like to build things that work,” says John Parmigiani, the lab’s director and associate professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University. This think tank for innovation turns ideas into new products and meets needs for consumers and companies.

Parmigiani and the lab’s 15 students (in the schools of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering; and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) tackle everything from products for startup companies to machinery for well-established manufacturers. Kitchen ware, child car seats and travel accessories are some of the projects underway. For ATI in Albany, Parmigiani’s students designed a machine to heat treat powdered metals. 

Students receive stipends for their work and, in some cases, academic credit as a capstone course project or for an honors-degree thesis topic.

“We’re given a raw idea. Our challenge is to turn it into a marketable product so that it’s reliable, efficient and reproducible,” Parmigiani says. Even scaling up a device that works as a proof of concept on a lab bench can pose new problems.

Some ideas sound simple, he adds. The inventor of the tree trimming device received a patent, so the notion “is considered feasible.” However, securing it to a tree and coordinating movements and cutting actions has proven to be difficult. 

New clients are always welcome. “A particularly interesting client is the person who has created a startup company,” says Parmigiani. Their commitment and passion make them effective participants in the development process.

Kirt Fuller, senior industry contract manager in the Research Office’s Advantage program, worked with Parmigiani to develop a unique, streamlined set of agreements and a process to efficiently protect confidentiality and launch projects. “If a client is interested in working with us, we can execute the contract in a day or two,” Parmigiani says. “We also have forms to manage intellectual property and create reasonable and predictable royalty payments that fit a client’s needs.”

Engineering graduate student Kyle McGann helped to develop an automated tree trimming device in the Prototype Development Lab. (Photo: Gale Sumida)