MSU Engineering Students Help Miles City Business with Manufacturing
BOZEMAN — When Curt Almy of Miles City recently found himself dealing with the rapid growth of his business, he turned to Montana State University students to help design a manufacturing process that could keep pace with demand for his product.
Almy, the inventor of a fastener called the Cat’s Claw that replaces traditional fencing staples, has worked for the past year with a small group of MSU engineering majors who tackled the manufacturing challenge for their senior capstone project. He recently visited Bozeman to see the team’s prototype machine, which sorts and combines screws with the Cat’s Claw’s trademark steel part that secures fence wire to wooden posts.
“I love win-win stories, and this is a win-win," Almy said. Working with a capstone team "is a wonderful opportunity if someone has a problem they think needs some engineering.”
As a requirement of graduation, all students in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering work in teams to tackle real-life design problems posed by businesses, MSU faculty and other sponsors. For Jacob Lackner, a mechanical engineering major from Frenchtown, working with Almy was a chance for him and his teammates to take their interest in manufacturing to the next level.
“It was a big challenge, but that also made it more interesting,” said Lackner, who is heading to a job with aerospace manufacturer Boeing after graduating this month. “We’ve definitely learned a lot along the way.”
To make the device, which consists of vibrating trays that feed the parts into rails where each screw is punched into a matching steel plate, the students had to draw on their knowledge of structural engineering, vibration mechanics and more. “It’s really the culmination of a lot of what we’ve learned in our classes,” Lackner said.
"Automating the whole thing was a challenge for sure," said team member Jonathon Holcomb, a mechanical engineering major from Billings. "We had to figure everything out from scratch." Holcomb said he was already applying the lessons from the capstone experience to his part-time job at local manufacturer Pocket NC, which makes desktop milling machines that can fabricate custom parts. Team member Dylan Botsford, a mechanical engineering technology major from Missoula, will continue after graduation to work at a St. Louis-based manufacturer of flame-resistant materials.
According to Craig Shankwitz, capstone instructor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, the senior projects not only test students' skills and teamwork against the complex design challenges they'll face as professional engineers but also offer an opportunity for MSU to help solve real-world problems in Montana and beyond.
There's always a need for capstone sponsors, he added.
Almy knew of that opportunity because his dad previously worked with a capstone team of MSU electrical engineering majors to make a device that could monitor the water level in the stock tanks on the family ranch outside Miles City. While maintaining the 18 miles of fencing on the property, Almy conceived and patented the Cat's Claw and began manufacturing it in Taiwan. Since 2018, sales of the product have doubled each year, and the Cat's Claw is now sold in about 200 retail outlets around the U.S. The increased pace of business ran up against the time lag of overseas shipping and the limitations of having the product assembled by hand.
"I said, 'There has to be a better way. Someone has got to be able to make a machine that could do this,'" Almy recalled.
Getting in touch with Shankwitz and then coordinating with the capstone team was easy, Almy said, and he was impressed with what the students came up with. Both he and the students recognize the prototype as a work in progress, something that could be further refined by another capstone team or with professional engineering services. "I'd love to bring the manufacturing back to U.S., maybe even Montana, and this could be one link in doing that," he said.
"The students brought a lot of skills to the table that I don't have," Almy said. "They wanted a good grade, I wanted a good product, and I think everyone benefitted."
For more information about how to sponsor a capstone project, visit coe.montana.edu/capstone.
- by Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service -