Mechanical Engineering: from Motorcycles to Cheese

During his time at Bethel and in his career since, Kent Underland ’11, Ph.D. has done it all as a mechanical engineer.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

May 17, 2019 | 8 a.m.

Kent Underland '11 in the Fluids Lab at Bethel

Kent Underland '11

Like many things in Kent Underland’s life, a recent career move was initiated while riding on a tractor.

Growing up in a farming family in Willmar, Minnesota, Underland grew accustomed to living life in tune with the seasonal changes and responsibilities of farming. Each spring, they’d plant. In summer, they’d irrigate and fertilize and plan for harvest. And as the months grew colder, Underland would take his turn driving the rows and rows of farm ground to bring in whichever crop they were growing that year. It was hard work, but he remembers struggling deeply with the distance between him and that annual rhythm when he was a new student at Bethel.

As a high schooler, he was recruited to play Royals football, but he quickly fell in love with the school’s faith-based learning environment and tight-knit community. A secondary draw was physics. Underland had known he wanted to be an engineer since he could drive, and he considered nearly a dozen other colleges with engineering programs before settling on Bethel.

“Bethel felt like the right combination of a place that could make me a good engineer...but could also help make me who God wanted me to be in terms of a man,” Underland remembers. Without a standalone engineering program at Bethel the time, he majored in physics. In the back of his mind the whole time was a deep-seated dream of going to work for NASA as an aerospace engineer someday. He started down that path by working with Professor and Chair of Physics and Engineering Brian Beecken, who was developing computer models for destructive spacecraft charging.

He also did summer research with Professor of Physics Keith Stein, fine-tuning the aerodynamics and fluid flow on Bethel’s new subsonic wind tunnel and supersonic shock tunnel. It was that experience that made him fall in love with the computational side of physics and engineering.

Underland as a student, working with Professor of Physics Keith Stein on the installation and refurbishment of Bethel's wind tunnel during the summer of 2010.

Underland as a student, working with Professor of Physics Keith Stein on the installation and refurbishment of Bethel's wind tunnel during the summer of 2010.

During tunnel calibration, Underland remembers coming to the realization that an experiment run on a computer was among the cheapest and most accessible projects he could do, not to mention it was a skill set that would serve him well in the rapidly changing and increasingly technological field of engineering. He excelled in the classroom but began taking on as many extra research projects as possible, building strong relationships with faculty and peers.

“Kent was a tenacious student who made the most of Bethel education both in the classroom and in the lab,” Stein remembers. “He continued working with the tunnel in his senior research project, which involved a number of tasks related to the automation of wind tunnel measurement.”

Underland even took a semester off, working in optics at 3M and gaining on-the-job experience before he graduated and was recruited into the University of Minnesota’s graduate mechanical engineering program. There he would join a research team with an emphasis in aerodynamics and thermodynamics. Then it was on to an industrial doctoral program in mechanical engineering while working full-time for Polaris in Wyoming, Minnesota. There he focused on radiation testing and then performed aeronautical computations to make Indian motorcycles more comfortable for riders.

He’d do high-tech modeling to make sure the exhaust pipe was far enough away from the footrests to avoid leg burns and that riders would feel just enough airflow for the ride to be refreshing and fun, but not jarring. He loved the job and the fringe benefits of working at a place with so many recreational vehicles readily available. But he finished the doctoral program and, with two young kids in tow, began feeling the pull westward, back toward open spaces and extended family.

“I was sitting in a tractor with a buddy who mentioned he knew a manager at RELCO, a company that did, as he described it, ‘stainless steel stuff for dairy operations,’” Underland recalls. “I said ‘That’s not motorcycles, by any means!’” A call from the general manager led to a job that lined up perfectly with Underland’s skill set in heat transfer and fluid flow.

“I went from being a junior member on a team of 30 at Polaris, not involved in much strategy at all, to being literally the only person who does what I do,” he says. Some of the industrial whey processing machines he helps design are 70 feet tall and high-tech, but utilitarian. In other words, they’re a far cry from motorcycles. “But I love the difficulty of the problems I’m solving in cheese. The math is really incredible.”

A cheese drying system designed by RELCO

RELCO designs process technologies for over 500 cheese and dairy plants across the globe. This photo shows the top floor of a drying plant, including a dryer, baghouse, and burner/heater.

More than the shift in technical focus, he’s able to see his work impact people in a different way. Of course, one could argue that there’s deeper value in providing a comfortable motorcycle ride to buyers, but today Underland’s calculations impact family farms. He says he’s “a few steps away from the actual cows,” but adds that he loves having an effect on people’s bottom lines in the farming industry, especially in a time when many are facing increasing costs and shrinking profit margins.

“As mechanical engineers, we have a calling to make things better. Whether it’s computer chips or recreational boats, we’re trying to think of things in a way that has not been thought of make lives better because of it,” Underland says. “I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter if you’re working on a spaceship or a dryer—the same equations have to be solved.”

Underland is a regular on Bethel’s campus, inspiring younger students in Bethel’s growing physics and engineering programs. He often shares about the breadth of what he’s been able to achieve in the handful of years since he graduated, and he reflects honestly about not only his calling to engineering, but the cultural fit he’s found at RELCO.

Stein adds that the approach Underland took to his undergraduate education sets a  great example for younger Royals who are navigating their path toward engineering. “Kent was a hard-working student who pursued his Bethel education and experience with a purpose and with humility. Kent frequently visited his professors to talk about coursework, about career goals, and about life in general,” Stein says. “As a professor, it was a privilege to see Kent’s growth and academic success at Bethel and to see how this led to M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering.”

Beneath the success in his career, Underland also sees a deeper purpose to what he does. And as Bethel continues to expand its engineering programs, he hopes there will be more engineers in the world who see their work in a similar way. 

Physics points to God. There are things we simply can’t calculate. There’s mass out there in the universe that we know exists, but we don’t understand. My belief in God fuels my desire to understand physics, which is a human effort to understand the order God put things in. It was Bethel that helped articulate that for me. To put more scientists into the world who think that way is so huge!

— Kent Underland '11

Pursue Physics or Engineering at Bethel

There has never been a better time to begin studying physics or engineering at Bethel. The department underwent an expansion and renovation in 2017, with another expansion beginning this summer to make way for new, specialized labs. New majors in the last few years include computer engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and software engineering.

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