“Um, how hot is it?” Austin Knapp asked as he was handed a ladle full of molten aluminum.
“Oh, it’s like 1,400 degrees.”
Suited up “like an astronaut” in shiny protective aluminum clothing, Knapp was getting ready to pour a metal casting in UNI’s Metal Casting Center (MCC). As a technology management and manufacturing engineering technology double major, it was his first time doing that kind of hands-on metal casting work.
He was terrified.
“When we got to the metal casting lab, I freaked out,” he said. “But once I poured my mold and had my actual casting, I was like, ‘This is really cool.’ It just kind of sparked something in me that I was like, ‘I want to do this. This is something I’m good at, something I understand. This is a way for me to succeed instead of repeating past incidents.’”
One of those “incidents” includes flunking out of school after his first year at UNI. As a freshman, he struggled to manage his time and prioritize his classwork. But after getting back into the groove by taking some classes at Kirkwood, Knapp (pictured below) was back at UNI and, shortly after that first experience with metal casting, started working part-time at the MCC, where he began “hitting my stride” and getting a clearer vision for what he wanted to do with his life.
Unfortunately, he struggled to successfully juggle classes, a part-time retail job and his job in the MCC, and he flunked out of UNI a second time.
“The first time, I don’t think it resonated with me as much as it should have, because I had other options,” he said. “The second time it was kind of like, ‘Alright, you need to stop screwing around.’"
So, Knapp had a meeting with admissions to plead his case. “I talked about my grades and how since I’ve gotten involved with this metal casting thing, how my grades have gotten better and I’ve kind of found what I wanted to do,” he said. “It must have worked because they let me back in.”
Back on campus on a probationary status, he quit his off-campus job to focus on school — but he was as busy as ever. Knapp dove back into his work at the MCC, becoming president of UNI’s American Foundry Society for a semester and securing an impressive internship with Neenah Foundry in Neenah, WI.
The internship actually came as a result of his work in the MCC and the connections he was starting to build — a UNI alumnus recruited Knapp for the job after seeing the quality of his work in the MCC. “He was impressed with my work ethic and kept tabs on me,” Knapp said. “Once he knew I was in the design lab and knew some of the things I was capable of there, he wanted me as an industrial engineering intern.”
Knapp did his internship in the summer of 2018. The work he’d done in the MCC gave him the confidence to move forward — maybe a little too much. “I originally thought going into this internship, ‘This isn't going to be a challenge. Look at the things I’ve done — I’ve put parts on helicopters for the navy. This is going to be a cake walk,’” he said. “And then they scoped out the project for me that I was going to work on and by the end of the first month, it had kicked my butt. I had to throw everything that I knew out the window and start from scratch.”
But in addition to overconfidence, Knapp’s experience in the MCC gave him the skills to be successful despite those initial challenges. He recalled sitting in on a meeting with an unfamiliar man. “I knew we were going to be having this internal meeting, but I didn’t know that this guy was coming in until we were there,” he said. “I didn’t really know who he was at first, but then I was like, ‘Oh, I know the book this guy wrote.’”
The man was a well-known name in the industry — and he was there to talk about a part Knapp made. “It was a little nerve wracking at first,” he said. “But by the end of it, they were like, ‘Yeah that’s really good work.’”
He wasn’t the only one who was impressed — Knapp did such good work during his internship that by the end of the summer, he was offered a full-time job at Neenah, which he began after he graduated in December. It’s not surprising that Knapp found a job so easily — according to Jerry Thiel, director of the MCC, graduates with a metal casting emphasis have seen placement rates as high as 100 percent. And yet Knapp does not take this success for granted.
“Eighteen-year-old me would have never thought I’d ever be here,” he said. “It makes all the fights worth it in the end, to know that there was at least some light at the end of the tunnel.”
And the thing that helped him first fall in love what metal casting that day in the metal casting lab is still what motivates him to succeed today. “I’ve struggled on a lot of things,” he said. “But when you can hold the [finished] part in your hand and someone else is praising it and says, ‘Yeah, you did a good job on this,’ it makes it worth it.”
The MCC and the future
Changes could be on the horizon for the Metal Casting Center and the entire Department of Technology that houses it.
Recently, UNI requested a three-year, $38-million investment from the state of Iowa to help fund a $42 million renovation and modernization of the Industrial Technology Center, which includes one of the two Metal Casting Center workshops.
The project highlights UNI's efforts to meet the state's accelerating demand for workers in construction, manufacturing and engineering technology industries — demand that is currently outpacing the number of workers available.
In her budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year unveiled January 15, Gov. Kim Reynolds funded the project in four years instead of three. That proposal still needs to be approved by the state legislature.