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CEDAR FALLS -- When Army National Guard Sgt. Roy Hutson arrived at the Black Hawk Hotel in Cedar Falls, he did not expect to find a bustling Main Street with a humming night life.

By the same token, residents of the Cedar Valley and beyond might be surprised to find the innovative facility that brought Hutson to Cedar Falls for three days last week.

Hutson was honing his skills as a sprayer for a military shop in New Castle, Del., at the STAR4D facility, tucked away in a nondescript building in the Cedar Falls Industrial Park.

STAR4D stands for Spray Technique Analysis and Research for Defense and is part of the University of Northern Iowa's Waste Reduction Center. The program caters almost exclusively to military personnel, using state-of-the-art equipment to improve their spray painting techniques.

With wars going on overseas, learning proper spray technique might seem a trivial point. However, military coatings tend to exceed the Dutch Boy standard, and agent-resistant or signal-hiding coatings can run up to $800 per gallon. The aim of the STAR4D program is to instruct military personnel on how to conserve coating material by spraying in the most efficient manner, which can save the government thousands of dollars each year while also maximizing the effectiveness of the coatings.

"Some of these coatings, if they're not applied properly, it could jeopardize the safety of soldiers in the field," said Joe Bolick, a process, research and education specialist for STAR4D.

Hutson is the only painter in his small Delaware shop, so proper spray techniques fall squarely on his shoulders. By his second day at STAR4D, Hutson said he could tell a huge difference in his efficiency from when he arrived.

"I've learned a lot about spraying from the proper distance and targeting the proper coating thickness," said Hutson, who has already done two tours overseas in Kuwait and Iraq. "And I've learned the difference in technique while using different coatings."

The STAR4D program was the brainchild of two UNI graduate students nearly 15 years ago, and it started by catering to automotive and manufacturing specialists. Bolick said nine years ago, the facility converted to a mock manufacturing facility, similar to those the military uses. Last week, STAR4D unveiled an expansion that added new practice facilities, a 3-stage stripping, painting and drying bay, and a 2-story classroom.

Even more impressive is some of the equipment inside the STAR4D facility. In particular, two STAR4D inventions stand out -- Virtual Paint and Laser Paint.

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Virtual Paint is essentially a sprayer converted to an input device for a computer. When a student pulls the trigger of the Virtual Paint device in front of a projection screen, it produces a mock spray on the screen. Different colors indicate whether the thickness of the coating would be too thin, too thick or just right if it were actually applied to a vesicle.

"This machine has unbelievable training potential, and it's cost effective," said Hutson. "You can just go practice on the machine as long as you want."

The Laser Paint device, meanwhile, is an attachment for sprayers that improves efficiency while actually spraying. Two lasers pointed inward adjust horizontally based on a desired thickness, and the sprayer needs only to make the lasers line up in a single dot to get a perfect spray -- assuming they move it at the proper speed, of course.

The STAR4D program has become so popular, that it has bred 38 satellite programs at community colleges throughout the country. And there is definitely still room for improvement at each one.

"Even after coming through the program, I tell students if they can get half the paint to land, they're doing good," said Bolick.

Contact Drew Andersen at (319) 291-1418 or drew.andersen@wcfcourier.com.

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