Bulk solids education at K-State gets a new name and location

Feb. 20, 2024
Kansas State University opens a new Bulk Solids Technology Center at the university’s Olathe campus near Kansas City.

For nearly ten years, Kansas State University’s Bulk Solids Innovation Center in Salina, Kansas, has been training students and industry professionals in the art and science of bulk solids handling and processing. Todd Smith has been managing the center since 2019. Processing recently spoke with Smith about changes to the center and upcoming class offerings in 2024.

(This conversation has been edited for space and clarity.)   

Processing: I understand that some big changes are underway at K-State this year. Can you fill us in on what's happening?

Smith: Yeah, I'm excited about it. We're going to be in a new location, we've got new sponsorships and a new partner base, and even a new name. The name now is Bulk Solids Technology Center. And we're part of the advanced manufacturing center at the campus of K-State in Olathe, Kansas, which is a suburb of Kansas City.

Processing: What has been driving these changes and the new location?

Smith: Well, it's a combination of several things. I'm new to academia. I just joined K-State about four years ago. Before that I was in industry for 40 years. The State Board of Regents dictates who does what in the university world and makes sure that things aren't duplicated, and that programs are offered in the right places, and K-State, Olathe, petitioned them, wanting to be the center of the university's advanced manufacturing. That was approved. The Bulk Solids Center is pleased to be the first part of that that will be opening up their advanced manufacturing center at the Olathe campus.

And it's a great fit for us. There's a lot of economic development and new businesses, new industry, manufacturing that's coming into place in that part of the state. It's a great fit, and we have the opportunity to be very close to industry. We will be easier for people to access, whereas where we were before, it was somewhat remote, several hours from a major airport. And now in Kansas City, it's a great location for all those reasons, for visitors and for our access to industry.

Processing: And what services do you offer to industry?

Smith: Well, it's the same that we've had for a while. One of the main things we do is education courses. These are short courses for industry personnel. We also do a lot of material testing. Companies will send us samples of their materials, and we help figure out from those material samples how to design equipment and systems. For example, how to do air filtration of different powders or various types of mechanical conveying and pneumatic conveying. We can figure out recommendations based on the material samples and, likewise, storage and flow. For example, how do you get that material to flow out of a hopper or silo? We can figure those things out based on material samples.

The third thing that we do is consulting and research projects. We have full-scale equipment that we will be putting in place, and we do a lot of projects with that to help people with scale up or with solving issues related to powder and bulk solid handling.

Processing: And what courses will you be offering in 2024?

Smith: We're starting those right away at the Olathe campus in Kansas City. The first ones are in February. It's a basic pneumatic conveying course. And then we're doing a repeat of that because that has been our most popular course. We're doing it again in late March. So those are February 20th and 21st and then March 26th and 27th. And then in April, we're doing an advanced pneumatic conveying course.

The basic course is for people who need familiarity. We talk about the different types of conveying systems, which ones to use at which times, vacuum or pressure, advantages and disadvantages of each and why you might use one versus the other. And we talk about the major components, what makes up a pneumatic conveying system and when things aren't going so well, how do you fix it? How do you troubleshoot? How do you improve things?

And then in the advanced course, we go more into theory and design of systems to help improve or upgrade or increase capacity when those things are needed.

We've had a break from our courses for a while because of this transition, and I'm excited to get back going with those. And those are on the website.

Processing: And these are at the Olathe campus?

Smith: Right. We will have courses there at Olathe. And then we have some wonderful partners that we're working with. A lot of the hands-on, full-scale demonstrations are going to be at some industry partners just a few minutes away.

Processing: What groups or partners are you working with?

Smith: We have a number of entities that we're working with. I already mentioned the University and the Board of Regents. In addition to that, we have four major equipment suppliers that are, I guess, kind of founding partners. They're providing some industry experts that are giving us advice and also instruction in our classes. They are also providing, as I mentioned, space for us to do these first courses while we're getting our lab set up. And they're also donating equipment and systems that will be used in our new facility in the full-scale laboratory.

In addition, we've got another 20 or so companies that are helping us by donating equipment and services and monetary support, and without them we wouldn't be able to have such a wonderful setup of equipment. We’ll have state-of-the-art, full-scale systems for conveying, air filtering, material handling, storage and flow, and they're helping us with all of that.

Processing: Has the mission of the bulk solids center changed or evolved since it opened?

Smith: Yes and no. The first few years, I would say we were a little more internally focused than we should have been and more academic, whereas the last half a dozen years, we've been really consistent that our focus is on helping industry. And that started right before I joined.

We are the only university-based facility and staff in North America that's dedicated to improving the state of the art and education for bulk solids, so that part has been consistent all the way through. But the focus really is on how we help industry. That's why we do a lot of articles and webinars in ways that are trying to get the word out there for education, and that helps us with publicity, so that people know about us and where to find us as well.

Processing: What are some of the most important challenges facing the bulk solids handling industry? And what could or should be done to overcome those challenges?

Smith: I would say, and I hear this from people all the time, that the biggest challenge is people and knowledge. None of this technology is taught in colleges. Everybody's in the same boat. They get hired to work in maintenance or project engineering or process engineering. How does this stuff work? And how do we figure it out? It's the most interesting technology, the most widespread technology that nobody thinks about unless you're in this industry. And there are a lot of older, gray-haired people like me that are retiring, and there's always a need for people, either with experience or those who want to learn.

Processing: What technology would you say has had the greatest impact on bulk solids handling during your career?

Smith: I'd say two things, really. The quick answer is electronics, controls and automation. When I started 40 years ago, there were a lot of analog and mechanical devices for controlling and measuring and instrumentation, and now that everything is digital and electronic, it is so much better, more reliable, less expensive. Automation is so much better, data is so much better, and things are reliable and less expensive. An example would be VFDs, or things that control the speed of a motor. How fast is that thing turning and operating? It used to be that those speed controllers were prohibitively expensive, but now they cost no more than a standard on/off motor starter, so they're very common. So that's the quick answer.

But I would say a bigger impact during my career is how much more reliable equipment and systems are now. Equipment manufacturers have done a great job of improving their products. Most of the time, it's small incremental changes over time that just add up, and the equipment is reliable, they know how to apply it, they know when and where to use it, when and where it doesn't work, and so the components are better than they used to be.

The same is true for systems. I worked at four different plants at DuPont, for example, and with equipment suppliers, there were so many options available that we didn't know exactly which one was the best way to do it. So, we would try things, and there were learning curves and difficulties. And over the decades, we've learned that some of those technologies should not be applied in every case — they work great for 20% of the cases. You know, what works in flour milling is not the same as ore handling, which is not the same as plastics handling or pharma or food.

Every application has its own interesting application requirements, and the equipment suppliers are really good at knowing what features and what equipment to use in what industry. Specialty chemicals is a great example, where manufacturing used to be somewhat hit or miss in that, you try something and it didn't work, so let's try something else. Now, those system suppliers are really good at knowing what works. And as a result, systems are better, they start up better, they're more reliable, things are more cost effective. I think that's the biggest improvement that I've seen during my career.

Processing: What challenges or technological advancements do you see impacting the industry significantly in the coming years?

Smith: The biggest things coming are the different materials that industry is being asked to process. Like with battery manufacturing, the battery materials are improving, but those materials are difficult to handle, and as the materials change, we have to figure out how to handle them. The same with environmentally friendly materials or biofuels, nanomaterials. Another one is 3D printing.

All of these things require special handling, special filtration and flow requirements and figuring those things out is the fun part and the challenge. So, we have been figuring out how to do a better job of taking a sample of material and doing bench tests rather than just full-scale trial and error. The key is to be able to take a sample of material, do the proper tests, understand how to interpret those test results, and then design things, whether it's mixing or agglomeration or size reduction, conveying, storage, air filtration, all of the above, we can do a better job of designing equipment and systems based on those small samples of material. And the materials are changing faster than I would have ever guessed, and that's what makes it fun.

Processing: And you said biomaterials. I assume that the difficulty with handling them is just the particle shapes. If you're recycling material, you get a lot of odd particle shapes and sizes that are all mixed together. 

Smith: Yes. Picture any of those biomaterials, whether it's seed hulls or straw, sugar cane or recycled waste, all of those things have horrible particle shapes as far as interlocking and friction and bridging. Flow issues are the biggest challenge. But if it's done properly, we can figure that out and make it work properly. But it's an interesting challenge.

Processing: So, with battery materials, what are the challenges there? Are they really fine?

Smith: Yeah, fine, sticky, hygroscopic. And it's the type of thing where the companies are figuring out in their labs what's the best material and combination of materials, and they'll add some secret ingredients to make it have the exact properties they want and it works well in the lab, but when they try to scale it up — and scaling up means big, because the volume requirement is big — scaling it up is the challenge. You can scale up from a lab to a pilot plant or a pilot plant to full-scale manufacturing, and each of those has big differences. A one-foot hopper is a lot different than a six-foot hopper, which is a lot different than a truck or a rail car full of material.

Processing: What are some of the most important things to remember or consider when designing a new bulk solid process?

Smith: I would say one of the most important things when designing a process is to first
set your goals because your project can't do everything. It can't be the least expensive and install the fastest and have the highest rate and increase production and quality and improve reliability and flexibility. So, you have to choose which of those things are most important for your project and get input from the stakeholders — whether it's production, maintenance people, marketing folks that are going to be selling the products being made — and set goals for the project and then share those goals with the equipment suppliers, your vendors, your system suppliers, and let them make recommendations for how to achieve those goals for your particular application and your particular materials. Because, as I said, the equipment suppliers are really good, but they'll do best if they understand what the requirements are.

And then the second thing I would say, that's really important for people working on projects and bulk solid processes is to do one’s homework and understand what the options are. For example, there are a dozen types of mechanical conveying, there are half a dozen basic different types of pneumatic conveying. So, knowing those options and which ones are applicable and which ones are the best fit. Knowing the basics and the terminology and questions to ask and which suppliers to go to. Doing that homework is really important. And then do testing as we talked about. If you've got new materials and different requirements, testing is important and helps tremendously.

Processing: Should testing always be done independently, or do suppliers do that? Where do you get your material tested and how?

Smith: There are several good choices. The equipment suppliers and systems suppliers will do testing, and they typically have nice test labs. They don't have everything. They can't have every bit of test equipment, but they have a nice variety and they do that testing for free, so that's always a really good option.

The other good option is there are a few independent labs — K-State, our bulk solids center is a great example — where we do independent testing for a fee and we try to have a very good, broad variety. We do a lot of testing for the equipment suppliers. Like I said, they can't have everything, and we have a better variety of the bench-scale type material properties testing apparatus, and so we do a lot of that. We do it for both the equipment suppliers and for people who are either using raw materials to make things and also those who are making the specialty materials or specialty bulk solids. An example would be a company that makes a powder, and their customers are complaining that it is clumping. It's caking and they can't use it properly. We can help figure out what to do about that and what the cause is.

Processing: Finally, what advice would you give to young people entering industries that handle or process bulk solid materials?

Smith: My advice would be that this is a fun business. It's a fun technology. It's not rocket science; we can figure out the basics without too much problem. But applying it to different materials in different applications is really an interesting challenge. Every project is different. Every material is different. Locations are different. You know, handling things down South is a lot different than handling things up North. It's a fun challenge. As evidence of that, I would say, look at the people who get into this industry and dig into it a little bit. They stick with it. People don't leave the industry and this technology once they get started because it is fun. It's interesting. My advice for young people is, you'll enjoy it.

You can listen to Processing’s entire interview with Todd Smith by going to the “Podcasts” tab on www.processingmagazine.com or searching for our “Ear on Processing” podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

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