What does a warm stick of butter have to do with innovation? It turns out, a great deal.

“The butter analogy was the easiest way to explain Dr. Sciammarella’s invention for laser-assisted machining,” mechanical engineering major Austin Pauga said of the process in which raw material is cut into a desired final shape and size.

He’s describing an Experiential Learning Center (ELC) project he worked on with seven other students: Avery Kirchner, Chase Nelson, Joshua Griggs, Robbie Glaser, Sam Jaros, William Holmes, and Yuxuan Qiu. The team also worked with the professor-inventor Dr. Federico Sciammarella, chair of the NIU Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Sciammarella’s invention—Easy Machining of Hard Materials (EMHM)—is a cost-effective method for machining advanced ceramics. The device includes a way to superheat materials before they’re cut in the laser-assisted machining process. The end result is a radical increase in quality, time efficiencies and tighter tolerances.

“I have worked on this since 2007,” Sciammarella said. “To have a great team put the final touches on this innovation was wonderful for the continuing growth of this technology.”

And the butter analogy? “Think of it as the difference between cutting through a warm stick of butter versus a cold one,” Pauga explained.

“The team’s ability to speak clearly about Federico’s invention represents a huge first step toward helping the Northern Illinois Research Foundation (NIRF) advance its plans to commercialize NIU faculty inventions,” said College of Business Dean Balaji Rajagopalan. “As a board member, I suggested they engage the creative minds of our students through the Experiential Learning Center (ELC).”

Created in 1998, the ELC crosses the boundaries of thought-leadership with students’ open-mindedness to solve firm-specific projects. The center originated from the business entrepreneurship classes taught by DanLemanski in the 1980s. Then and now, students’ capabilities are unleashed in a collaborative space, with guidance from faculty and outside experts.

“The students faced uncertainty about the technology, the market and the commercialization process itself. They did so exceptionally well,” said Bart Sharp, the Mike and Kristina McGrath Professor of Entrepreneurship.

The team worked with NIRF personnel and Sciammarella throughout this process, as well as faculty coaches Sharp and Joan Petros, ’87, machining industry and technology transfer experts, and five alumni who connected the team with an outside community of professionals. By the semester’s end, the team crafted a business plan with financials, analyzed three possible commercialization options, and benchmarked technology transfer processes.

“We’re grateful for everyone’s help, especially the alumni. We didn’t just cross academic boundaries,” said accountancy major Kirchner. “We entered new territories for what we thought we could accomplish.”