New GVSU center promises to streamline local electronics industry

Already making its mark on the craft-brew and heavy-metal subcultures, Grand Rapids is now blowing up the electromagnetic pre-compatibility testing scene. It's good, trust us.
A new electrical engineering testing center at Grand Valley State University should, according to university engineering staff, aid small and medium-sized local electronics manufacturers, streamline development of new products, and give Grand Valley engineering students hands-on experience in an expanding area of their field — a win-win-win situation for students, the university and local industry, the center’s masterminds say.

The new center is called the Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) Center, and it specializes in what’s known as electromagnetic pre-compliance testing for electronic devices. All new electronics products entering the marketplace are legally required to undergo EMC testing and meet standards established by the Federal Communications Commission before they can be bought and sold — which is why demand in the field continues to mushroom, says Paul Plotkowski, Dean of the Seymour and Esther Padnos College of Engineering and Computing at Grand Valley.

“West Michigan is a great center of manufacturing,” Plotkowski says, “and the products that are being designed and manufactured here are becoming increasingly complex and increasingly electronic-based.”

“So take something as simple as the door handle on the car that you came here in,” Plotkowski continues. “A traditional mechanical door lock, you have a key that goes into the slot, unlocks it and opens the door. It’s all mechanical, there’s no need for compliance testing. But if I [the car manufacturer] replace that with an electronic key fob with an electric lock, that fob has to be [EMC] certified and so does the receiver, and the system it’s driving.”

Essentially, EMC regulations exist to make sure electronic devices don’t interfere with each other. EM interference issues, for example, are the reason you’re not supposed to screw around with your cell phone while you’re on a plane — the electromagnetic emissions from your phone could, (very) theoretically, mess with the flight equipment or cause any number of other problems.

Of course, it would be pretty embarrassing and horrific if a couple Instagrams brought down a commercial airline flight — which is exactly why more and more products and components of products are subject to EMC testing, and why the standards imposed by the FCC get more and more stringent over time.

“The manufacturers around here,” Plotkowski says, “as they move to more and more mature products, they’re going to have much greater need to be able to do this [kind of testing].”

The 4,000-square-foot EMC Center, located at 609 Watson Street in Grand Rapids, was developed primarily by Grand Valley engineering professor and electrical engineering chair Bogdan Adamczyk over the past two-and-a-half years in what Plotkowski calls a “labor of love.” The university previously owned the space and used it for storage.

After Plotkowski helped secure funding to renovate the space through several area donors, Adamczyk and two friends from the local engineering industry spent nights and weekends taking apart, hauling to the EMC center and re-assembling donated engineering equipment from local companies.

Adamczyk says that the critical value of the facility comes from its specialization in EMC “pre-compliance” testing, which is different than an actual compliance test. The facilities that offer true FCC-approved compliance testing are relatively few and far between, he says, and those facilities tend to be very expensive and have lead times stretching months ahead.

“Oftentimes when you go to a compliance test,” he says, “you have your product tested and you either pass or fail and you go home. You either need to redesign, or you pass and you’re good. And if you need to redesign, those places are not set up to help you with this.”

Compared to the “bona fide” compliance testing, a pre-compliance facility can help a local manufacturer figure out where there product is at in terms of meeting EMC standards, redesign it as needed and re-test it until they’re almost certain it will pass a compliance test — all for a small fraction of the expense of dealing with a compliance facility, and with much less scheduling hassle.

Adamczyk says that while there are EMC research centers at large research universities, he’s never heard of a similar one that connects to local industry for pre-compliance testing and allows students to work hands-on while doing so.

“We’re not competing with compliance labs, either,” Adamczyk notes. “When their customer fails the test, they now have a place they can send them to locally for redesign and further pre-compliance testing, and they can come back when they’re ready for compliance testing. So really, they need a place like this because it complements what they do, and they keep their customer base happy.”

Besides giving local industry a leg up in product development and EMC testing, the center will give students increased access for hands-on work experience and new opportunities for professional connections in the EMC area, Adamczyk and Plotkowski both say. For instance, they say, the facility now hosts in its seminar room meetings an EMC-focused chapter of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), and will accommodate various engineering guest presentations in the future as well.

The school is also in the process of adding additional chambers to the testing facility that will allow it to offer an even wider array of technical testing, Adamczyk says.

Plotkowski says that the EMC Center won’t generate any significant profits for the university, however. He says that a pre-compliance center with reasonable rates for local business simply won’t allow for much revenue over operating cost, which is why one never existed in the area until now.

If they can get the center to the point where it covers its own operating costs and perhaps allows a budget for hiring a few student-interns, he says, that would be “a wonderful place to be.”

“The intent is to help small and medium-sized area businesses in being profitable,” Plotkowski says, “[to] help them develop new products faster, and so employ more folks… It’s really a community outreach kind of thing.”

Recent GVSU engineering graduate James Koehler said that he frequently uses student experience from the EMC center on the job. Although he isn’t a dedicated EMC engineer, he says that he works as part of a team that deals with EMC issues. Koehler graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and currently works for Johnson Controls Inc. in Holland.

“Basically, EMC as a study is something that all electrical engineers need to be aware of,” he says. “The center was really useful for labs, giving us our first experience of what a real EMC lab looks and feels like. I think it makes the Grand Valley engineering program more attractive, especially with them still growing the center and adding new aspects to it.”

Steven Thomas Kent is the editor at Roadbelly magazine and a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. Stalk him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird