'It's great to ask geeks for advice'
Livingston, Mont. - Dana Gleason, an avid skier, thought he knew how to make a great backpack. In 1985 he founded Dana Design in the back of his garage with eight sewing machines. His product was a hit, and soon stores across the West were clamoring for more. In the first year, sales totaled $40,000. Just three years later, the company was selling $500,000 in products and employing 21 people.
But while Gleason knew a lot about backpacks, he knew less about assembly line production. The company had grown so fast that production was hardly able to keep up. So in 1988 Gleason approached Montana State University's new University Technical Assistance Program, which is designed to provide free expertise to Montana companies while giving students problem-solving experience. Housed in the "Montana Manufacturing Extension Center," the program is a prime example of the university's drive to esxpand the extension mission to every corner of the university.
Enter Alan Deibert, a 30-year-old grad student in industrial engineering at Montana State. Deibert not only helped unplug Dana Design's production bottleneck; he also wrote himself into a job with the company after graduation, fulfilling one of the university program's stated goals: to keep smart kids in the state.
"What's the point of educating top-quality students only to have them leave?" asks Bob Swenson, the university's vice president for research. "We need to help create successful companies here."
Since Deibert's unpaid internship with Dana Design ended, more students have been brought in, some to solve engineering problems and others to offer opinions on the latest prototype pack. "It's great to ask geeks for advice," says Deibert, now Dana Design's production manager. "A backpacker is the worst person to design a pack, where an engineering student will ask the most challenging questions. Students can be good for a company," adds Deibert, "because they're not afraid to be really creative and far-out. Most of the time, their ideas are dead wrong, but sometimes they're terrifically innovative."
Over the years, the assistance program and its students have helped Dana Design with everything from designing new mechanisms for testing aluminum strength in the packs' internal frame to creating a system for stuffing waist-bands. The company has also benefited from Montana State's engineering facilities; an on-campus machine regularly tests the tensile strength of Dana Design's fabrics and stitching. "Normally, we wouldn't have access to a machine like that unless we were a $50 million company," says Deibert.
Bob Taylor, the program's director, estimates it has contributed over 300 hours of consulting to Dana Design. The tens of thousands of dollars of free advice gives the company, and Montana, a competitive advantage. Dana Design now employs 200 Montanans in three facilities across the state, and its annual sales have topped $6 million. Its packs have won design awards from numerous magazines and organizations, including the nonprofit Alpine Institute of America. The company also won a national "blue chip enterprise" award and recognition from the Montana governor. Last year, Dana Design was bought by a large outdoor products company based in California, but Deibert says production will continue to be based in Montana.
For Montana State, the program represents a very new direction from traditional agricultural outreach. "We'd like to be a research arm for the industrial sector as we are for agriculture," says vice president Swenson. To that end, the program has assisted hundreds of small Montana manufacturers, including a host of new laser and high-tech firms, in the nine years it has been operating. Many of the companies hear about the program through local extension agents.
Taylor estimates the program has cost about $1.6 million so far. It has been funded in part by the university, in part by the federal Economic Development Administration in the U.S. Department of Commerce and by various in-kind contributions.
In a state that is cutting deeper and deeper into higher education funding, the program's future remains uncertain. This is the last year of its federal grant. "We'll have to start relying more on state, private and university money," says director Taylor. "We think we've proven ourselves useful, but (continued funding) will depend on the mood of the legislature."