Academic, practical knowledge are key to success for engineering student

Contact: Cindy Wagner

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University mechanical engineering student Ryan Ahrens believes that to find success, engineers need to augment their academic pursuits with practical experience to find useful solutions to everyday challenges. And, as an entrepreneur and undergraduate student, he works diligently to take advantage of opportunities to achieve all of his goals in this way. 

“Engineers need practical training on assembling, welding and overall design,” says Ahrens. “Working on the shop floor offers many good teaching moments to engineers. You may learn how to design a part with less welding, how to make bolting locations easier to access or make something easier to lift. These are super important examples of basic tool and machinery knowledge that engineers need.”

Taking advantage of academic labs and professional experiences helps Ahrens refine his skills. One such opportunity includes the Parker Motion and Control Laboratory that offers hydraulic, pneumatic and electromechanical systems engineering equipment through support from Parker. In the lab, Dr. Rick Meyers, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, teaches a course that offers Ahrens specialized hands-on experiences.

“The Parker classroom at WMU has taught me that our designs have real world applications,” says Ahrens. “Dr. Meyer’s motion and control class is very practical because it allows us to use professional hydraulic equipment in the lab and gives us a learning experience we otherwise wouldn’t have had. I also liked how we were allowed to run the lab, instead of just seeing a demonstration.”

Ahrens’ practical engineering experience began right after high school as an engineering intern at A&B Packing Equipment, where he spent four years designing machinery.

“This taught me many valuable lessons, and eventually showed me my true passion for entrepreneurship. I ended up leaving that position to start my own business, where I know my true professional journey is,” he says.

Forming that business, Jet North, has Ahrens restoring personal watercraft such as Jet Skis, Sea Doos and WaveRunners. He is so successful that he plans to continue his company following graduation from Western in spring 2023.

Studying fluid mechanics in his courses helps with his business. A huge jet ski enthusiast, Ahrens says he is always thinking about the engineering behind the hydrodynamics of the Jet Skis and how to improve them. “I am also interested in engine technology, upgrades, improvements, etc. ‘Going faster’ is fun, but it’s more meaningful to understand how to ‘go faster’ the easiest, cheapest or fastest way,” says Ahrens, adding that his education is teaching him the analytics behind real world problems.

“Instead of taking educated guesses, I can now give calculated solutions or computer models that will reflect the natural laws we all experience on earth. This is another way to say ‘I know the science behind the problem.’ It may sound simple on paper, but this is a powerful skill to have, especially in a tech saturated market where educated solutions are in need.”

Ahrens chose Western for its renowned engineering program and because he was able to transfer his entire associate degree from Kalamazoo Valley Community College, a degree he earned as a dual-enrolled high school student. This choice also allowed him to stay close to where his garage is so he can continue his business.

“In the coming years, I plan on starting more businesses that involve manufacturing or some sort of production to use what I’ve learned in the mechanical engineering program,” says Ahrens. “I hope to continue increasing my skills in understanding how the world works, networking, sales knowledge and future products that I would like to design, create, and sell.”

Check out Ahrens marketplace on Facebook.

Learn more about the resources of the Parker Motion and Control Laboratory.

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