By Tom Still
CHILTON, Wis. – Just off the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago lies the 40-acre site of the Lakeside Vision Center, a research and demonstration project tied to Faith Technologies Inc., a Wisconsin born-and-bred company that has grown from a handful of commercial electricians about 50 years ago to more than 3,000 employees in the state and well beyond.
It’s a prime example of how innovation is changing how electricity is generated through ground-mount and rooftop solar, advanced microgrids and battery storage techniques, and creating electric vehicle charging capacity robust enough to quickly power a fire truck.
The center, as well as the rest of Faith Technologies, is also an example of why many businesses need more trained engineers.
A few years back, Faith employed about 25 engineers. Today, it’s closer to 200 with more hires expected as the company pioneers off-the-grid solutions for its company and others. These are mostly electrical, software and industrial engineers, but there are many other varieties.
If the average person is asked to describe what engineers do, phrases such as “problem-solving,” “building stuff” and “making things” might be common answers. Those same people may not know how many disciplines and professions engineering encompasses.
People who earn degrees from the UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, Marquette University, UW-Platteville and the Milwaukee School of Engineering, to cite prominent in-state examples, are engaged in disciplines that also include chemical, civil, biomedical, mechanical, environmental, nuclear, aeronautical and materials engineering, to name a few.
Industry is clamoring for more. At the UW-Madison College of Engineering, where a new building is on hold in the Wisconsin Legislature, some 3,400 companies showed up in the last year to compete for about 940 graduates. The Madison engineering school gets at least 8,400 applications each year but can only accept a little more than 1,000 of them. The proposed $347 million building, which would be one-third privately funded, would nearly double those admissions over time.
Two more reminders about the diversity of work performed by engineers came across my desk this week.
In a conversation with Dr. Howard Bailey, director of the Carbone Cancer Center in Madison, the importance of biomedical engineering in the center’s fight against cancer was clear.
“The College of Engineering is important and valuable … to our cancer center mission,” Bailey said. “Dozens of engineering faculty are contributing directly to increasing our knowledge of cancer and our ability to more effectively diagnose and treat cancer.”
He noted those faculty have directly added to “increased understanding of ovarian, breast and prostate cancer through first-in-the-world devices and/or imaging used in patients or developing innovative ways to study cancer in our laboratories.”
Another example came from SHINE Technologies in Janesville, where the company announced a long-term supply agreement with Nucleus RadioPharma, which is the world’s first fully integrated development, manufacturing and supply chain for radiopharmaceuticals.
Radiopharmaceuticals are used about 60,000 times per day in the United States alone to treat various health conditions. In this case, SHINE will supply pure lutetium-177 produced in Janesville at its Cassiopeia production plant for treatment of several types of cancers and tumors.
Nuclear engineers at SHINE – such as founder Greg Piefer, a UW-Madison graduate – and biomedical engineers are directly involved in making Wisconsin a national hub for radiopharmaceuticals. Other engineering disciplines are also well-represented at SHINE, which has the goal of using fusion technology in medicine, nuclear waste recycling and commercial fusion energy.
There’s a reason why executives from more than 40 major firms and trade associations have joined together to petition the Legislature to allow construction of the UW-Madison College of Engineering building to proceed. In one discipline or another, all those companies need more engineers to grow and compete. Failure to do so puts Wisconsin’s economy and the health of its citizens at a disadvantage.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at email@example.com.