Rick Heuer has been welding, reading blueprints, and sketching designs for tools since he was a kid. After 30 years of self-employment in a physically taxing line of work he enrolled in 2018 at age 58 in Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) in Eau Claire, WI, to learn how to leverage his mechanical ingenuity for a new career.
In his two years as a full time CVTC student, Heuer has been part of two teams that took first place awards (each with a $1,500 prize) in the American Technical Education Association 3-D Futures Competition.
“When I compare his first day when he joined the program and now, it’s amazing. He’s very fast, very efficient,” Mahmood Lahroodi, mechanical design instructor and coach of the two teams, said of Heuer. Heuer’s academic success and competition victories have made him a campus celebrity. He is featured in college marketing and was to speak at the spring graduation. Unfortunately, the in-person ceremony was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2019, Heuer was part of a four-student team that created Kara, an imitative-interactive robot. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjadopEBiJA&feature=youtu.be
In 2020, Heuer and his daughter Sarah Heuer, a University of Wisconsin-River Falls student, took the first place prize for the Merry mobile robot. Rick designed and built the robot that Sarah filmed for the video portion of the contest application: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ye6-_rDkl10&feature=youtu.be
Rick Heuer initially designed Merry for a class project in fall 2018. However, it took the support of an Advanced Technological Education grant from the National Science Foundation—the Developing Resources for Enhancing Additive Manufacturing Education project (Award # 1902501)—for him to build the robot.
Enhancing Additive Manufacturing at the College
Lahroodi, principal investigator of the additive manufacturing project, said the 3-D metal printer and online modules that CVTC faculty created for the ATE project facilitated “a big paradigm shift” in Heuer’s design and sparked a sequence of improvements to Merry. When interviewed in the early spring of 2020 Lahroodi was reviewing Heuer’s 15th version of the robot’s design. Aside from meeting the requirements of the capstone project for his associate degree in mechanical design technology, Heuer thinks Merry’s capacity to turn tight corners and carry up to 100 pounds makes her a potential product for warehouse operators and other industries.
“I’m pretty self-motivated,” Heuer says with the confidence of man who handled being decades older than most of his instructors and classmates, and overcame struggles with various technologies and Calculus. “When I started I didn’t know the keyboard from the mouse,” he chuckled. He received tutoring at the college’s Learning Center and encouraged other students to go there for help.
He’s proud to be on the Dean’s List and says, “If I can do it, anyone can.”
Clearly college is not the most difficult thing that Heuer has done. As the main employee of his business, Cow Man Management Services, Heuer trimmed the hooves of 8,000 dairy cows each year.
Searching for a new job amid the COVID-19 pandemic is his current challenge, but the ever-upbeat Heuer said, “I think I have a huge leg up on a lot of designers who don’t have a background in manufacturing.”
Expanding Additive Manufacturing in the Community
Lahroodi is pleased with the way the ATE project has added to the additive manufacturing skills of CVTC students and broadened the use of additive manufacturing beyond the campus. With ATE grant support and the permission of the manufacturer of the 3-D printer, he and other CVTC faculty added videos and lesson plans to the manufacturer’s instructions.
“We didn’t develop all those tutorials, but we converted their materials to an education format and we designed class activities and assessments to go with those tutorials,” he said.
In addition to bringing new content to the college’s associate degree programs, the ATE project has led to a new collaboration with the Pablo Center at the Confluence, a performing arts center in Eau Claire that offers workforce development and outreach programs.
Pablo Center and CVTC have so far had two Additive Manufacturing Workshops—one at the Pablo Center and the other at CVTC’s FabLab. The workshops have attracted a diverse group of women and men ranging in age from 13 to 55. “People in the community, based on their passion, join,” he said. The projects have ranged from printing old car parts to creating components for a new game.
Participants have access to the modules and materials provided by the ATE grant and Lahroodi’s guidance on their projects.
“I believe the National Science Foundation wants us to enhance additive manufacturing for everyone,” Lahroodi said.