Rowan Engineering Alum Shocks Auto World

Michael Muhlbaier, who earned a Master's degree in Engineering at Rowan, founded a South Jersey firm to design and build cutting edge automotive products. Also Available as an On the Go Cast
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Michael Muhlbaier's post-grad work is shocking.

That's because Muhlbaier, who earned his Master's in electrical and computer engineering at Rowan in 2006, is building a business, in part, in shocks.

Air shocks.

His design for an internal, infrared sensor for aftermarket air-filled shock absorber systems was named one of eight best new products (out of 1,500!) at the 2008 SEMA convention, a massive Las Vegas auto equipment show.

The design also won him a contract with Air Ride Technologies, a Jasper, Ind., company that sells automotive air-suspension systems all over the world. While Air Ride is a leading supplier of air shock systems, it needed an internal sensor to control how high or low vehicles installed with their systems ride (depending on the air pressure). Existing systems required the tedious installation of linkages and external sensors that took up to several hours extra time, greater expertise and more money. And that's where Muhlbaier's work fit in.

"I thought about it and said I'm just going to make my own," said Muhlbaier, 25, of Blackwood.

Though a budding success, the sensor wasn't his first foray into automotive engineering. His company, Spaghetti Engineering of West Berlin, won the Air Ride contract in part through its connection with American Auto Wire, a firm that helped distribute Muhlbaier's flagship taillight product. Sold under the trade name Digi-Tails, the sequentially firing LED taillights are designed for classic muscle cars like the '67 Camaro, the '71 Nova and the '57 Chevy and are shipped around the U.S. and to a dozen countries worldwide.

As in the case of the shock absorber sensor, necessity was the mother of invention for the taillight system, too.

"Our business model is to find needs as we're working on our own cars and there was nothing else like that out there," he said.

Executives from American Auto Wire knew executives with Air Ride and an introduction was made.

"First we landed the development contract with Air Ride and then we landed a supply contract for any of their systems that need a control system," Muhlbaier said.

He expects to sell Air-Ride roughly 2,500 sensor/control systems per year for the next three or four years. In addition to the internal sensor he designed, the control system will feature a trim plastic panel by which the driver can operate the air shock system, raising or lowering the car's body at the touch of a button, and Spaghetti Engineering is producing that too.

"A lot of guys might want a car that's low to the ground for handling, better gas mileage, et cetera, but you also want to be able to go up a driveway if you need to," he said.

Yankee Ingenuity

Muhlbaier and his partners, Apostolos Topalis (another Rowan-trained engineer) and Sebastian Blicharz, designed the infrared sensor and tested it in a heating/cooling chamber they built in their shop. The team constructed the chamber from a standard freezer unit fitted with a Plexiglas window and a miniature space heater.

"We could have spent thousands of dollars but this, for a couple hundred bucks, did exactly the same thing," Muhlbaier said.

Attached for days to a moving shock absorber inside the chamber, the sensor was subjected to temperatures ranging from 20 degrees below zero to up to 200 degrees above. Simulated road conditions (where real-world shock absorbers accumulate grease, road grime, tar and other sludge) were approximated with layers of matte black spray paint.

Research + Passion = Success

Muhlbaier, whose company has six full time employees, said everything he does is grounded in science and research, from the light-emitting diodes that compose his high-tech taillights to the electronic brain that controls the air-filled shock absorber sensors.

His business is part Silicon Valley, part Old Detroit, but it springs from the work he did at Rowan. Muhlbaier's graduate research project focused on artificial intelligence.

"It was about an algorithm I developed," he said of the thesis, a copy of which resides in a cabinet above his desk. "The work involved pattern recognition - trying to get a computer to learn from data. We used neural networks to recognize and classify data."

And a smart chip is exactly what he designed for the shock absorber system. The connection between his Rowan research and his air-shock innovation is that the sensor uses a neural network to gauge distances and reflectivity inside the shock absorber.

But the consumer may never need to know all that.

"The average guy just needs to know he doesn't need to install an external sensor and linkage," Muhlbaier said. "That's what he's paying an extra couple hundred bucks for."

To learn more about the graduate programs offered at Rowan University, please visit the Graduate School's Website.