An all-Kettering crew
Entrepreneur Kyle Schwulst '02 was having trouble finding the employees he needed to grow his fledgling engineering company, then he hired a Kettering co-op and the rest is history.
It started with one co-op student. Then business began to boom with Defense Department contracts and overseas opportunities. Kyle Schwulst ’02 found himself in need of experienced, motivated engineers and he needed them in a hurry.
After what he calls a “nightmare” trying to find qualified employees, he decided the answer was his alma mater. Schwulst, owner and president of ElectroJet Inc., an engineering design firm that uses patented technologies to reduce the complexity and cost of advanced engine control systems, looked at Kettering University graduates as the best resource to beef up his employee base quickly.
The young entrepreneur’s first experience with employees from Kettering was through the co-op program. “Utilizing the co-op program at Kettering was an easy decision for me as an employer,” he said, “having been in the program I knew it was a great experience for both parties. After my first term with Lu I was spoiled,” he added, “I can’t imagine a better co-op employee.”
Within six months of hiring co-op employee Lu Chen, an exchange student from Namping in China's Fujian Province, he had hired three full-time engineers and a second co-op student. “Although they were already employed,” he said of two of his engineers, “I was able to persuade them to join me with the lure of a decent salary and creative license in their job, and it’s been great ever since.”
All his full-time engineers were referred by “people I respect,” said Schwulst. “I’ve found that endorsements from my Kettering connections work best for me.” Ryan Klumpp ’07, a Mechanical Engineering major from Goodrich, Mich., was available because his co-op employer had a hiring freeze when he graduated. Klumpp was referred by someone who liked his work, but couldn’t hire him.
Schwulst has also found that his Kettering engineers fulfill his need for employees who can work independently and take charge of their projects. “It is more critical that the employee base in a small company be high functioning than in a large company,” said Schwulst, “here there is little room for error or incompetence.” Even his patent attorney, John Nemazi of Brooks Kushman, happens to be a Kettering graduate.
Citing scooter projects with Chinese manufacturers and military projects with the U.S. Department of Defense, Schwulst admitted that despite the recent hires “we are still short-staffed for the volume of work that we do.” But already his staff has been able to facilitate the rapid growth ElectroJet is experiencing, according to Schwulst.
One example is the calibration software created by Alex Lucido ’05, a Computer Engineer from St. Clair Shores, Mich.The software calibration tool he designed enables ElectroJet to test their engine control systems on customer products in real-time, greatly reducing the time needed for product calibration.
What sets the “tool” apart from traditional calibration methods is that ElectroJet operates the calibration tool through a USB cable. It performs data acquisition directly from the module, showing up on a computer screen in the form of a virtual instrument cluster and calibration interface. “It allows us to monitor and modify all operating variables in the engine while it is on a dynamometer, significantly reducing development time,” said Schwulst.
Industry standard calibration “tools” (software and hardware) cost about $30,000, according to Schwulst. ElectroJet charges customers about $250 for their cable.
Keeping the internal research and development efforts moving forward is Parker Mossman ’05, another Computer Engineer, originally from Sandusky, Ohio. Mossman was the first full-time Kettering graduate Schwulst hired, and the only one with a private office in ElectroJet’s facility, other than Schwulst.
Of course, as Schwulst likes to point out, Mossman’s office door sign reads “supplies,” but that doesn’t seem to bother the engineer in charge of designing all the embedded controls in the company’s computer modules.
“I left a job with one of the big three automakers to join ElectroJet because I thought it was a good opportunity and would be more fun than being a ‘trained monkey’ in a big corporation,” Mossman said. “I’m still a monkey,” he joked, “but now I’m a monkey with more responsibility.”
The smaller company also offers the staff more opportunity for creativity and diversity in their work. Just how much diversity is evident inside the company’s testing facility. Behind the office area is a shop with three dynamometers for emissions testing: an engine dynamometer built in-house for testing utility engines; n eddy current chassis dynamometer for testing motorcycle and ATV emissions; and an ultra-low inertia dynamometer for aircraft projects to test small aircraft engines.
One of the challenges with engine testing is properly venting the test benches. Because their current location is rented and not equipped for this type of engineering work, Schwulst and his employees had to build their own exhaust system, doing all the work themselves, right down to the TIG welding, metal forming and hanging of ductwork.
This isn’t the kind of ductwork found in residential properties. The project became a do-it-your-self endeavor after Schwulst received a $10,000 quote to build the exhaust system from a contractor. “We did it for a fraction of that cost and created something that was aesthetically pleasing, modular and explosion-proof (yes, explosion-proof),” he said. “In addition, it was a great learning experience for the ElectroJet team.”
“That was a fun project,” said Schwulst. “It took us about two weeks to build it.” Drawing on his own Kettering experience, Schwulst taught Klumpp and co-op employee Alex “The Hammer” Halatsis, of Alameda, Calif., how to TIG weld and shape the 16-gage steel.
“Sometimes it is just nice to get your hands dirty,” said Schwulst. “I feel strongly that it is important for engineering students to know how to make things. My employees will be better engineers through first-hand knowledge of how parts are manufactured and assembled,” said Schwulst of teaching fabrication techniques to his staff.
It took a while to refine their skills however. “Hammer” got his nick name working on the ductwork. Apparently he whacked the steel so hard he left hammer marks. “The top of the ductwork is not pretty,” said Schwulst, “but it looks great from the shop floor.” “Hammer” said he enjoyed learning how to weld, “but by week three it was losing its luster.”
Chen said she didn’t do much welding, but she was in charge of boring holes in the pipe flanges so the sections could be bolted together - pretty impressive for an Applied Mathematics major.
Schwulst calls the dynamometers and the testing area the company’s pride and joy, because ElectroJet used to have to farm out testing to Kettering University and Lotus, on a project by project basis. “It is faster and cheaper to do the testing ourselves,” said Schwulst.
In-house testing is critical for ElectroJet. “As a small company it is hard to commit large amounts of funds to research and development for multiple new product targeted for the commercial market,” explained Schwulst. What was once a variable cost based on project volume is now a fixed cost, and readily available asset for testing and development, he added.
With plans to expand testing capabilities further, Schwulst is calculating more growth for ElectroJet. “I want to grow slowly so we can manage our growth and continue to be successful,” he said.
Toward that end he plans to attend the Worlds Best Technology (WBT) Showcase in Texas this month. WBT is the largest technology-based venture capital symposium in North America. Participating technologies are selected by, and presented to, more than 100 seasoned venture investors and Fortune 500 licensing scouts, representing a variety of industries, each supported by private funding, federal R&D grants or both, according to the WBT web site.
Presenters include startup companies like ElectroJet, with technologies that have the potential for high growth commercial enterprise or that can be easily licensed to solve a specific market problem.
Schwulst’s goal is to find financing to build a larger facility for ElectroJet’s operations. “A lot of our testing equipment needs a temperature and humidity controlled environment for optimal testing,” he explained. “I would like to have a permanent (not rented) facility and purchase more equipment to expand our in-house capabilities.”
Currently the company can test products relative to the international emissions standards, but does not have the equipment to certify a product to those standards. With the right equipment, ElectroJet could do certification work. “Manufacturers need certification that our product meets emissions requirements before they can incorporate it into their vehicles and sell it in the global market,” he said. Performing certification in-house would expand the company’s capabilities and add value to the ElectroJet product.
With letters of intent from Chinese manufacturers for long-term partnerships, and more military contracts coming in, Schwulst’s dreams for growth may very soon become a reality. And with that growth will probably come more Kettering graduates and co-op employees. “It’s been a great fit so far,” he said.
Written by Dawn Hibbard