Camaraderie and Collaboration Bring Success to ARA

Ericka Amborn was born and raised in Rapid City. After graduating with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, she earned a master’s degree from South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and accepted a job with Applied Research Associates (ARA) in Albuquerque in 2011. After five years in New Mexico, she and her husband were eager to return home; so, she asked to work remotely and was given the opportunity to start a satellite office in Rapid City. 

ARA is divided into four business sectors that operate under a single umbrella: national security, infrastructure, health solutions, and energy/environment. The focus of the Rapid City office is on Department of Defense projects. They work primarily with the Air Force, though not with Ellsworth, as you might assume; most of their contracts are based in Florida and Utah. 

Ericka, Senior Engineer, works with two other full-time employees in the Ascent Innovation campus. In addition, they’ll be opening internship opportunities. ARA’s core business in the local office involves finite element modeling; they run simulation-based design programs focusing on impact events, calculating stresses experienced by various munition systems. Ericka’s team defines geometry, applies material parameters, enters constraints and initial conditions, and then studies the outcome at every millisecond following the simulated impact to determine whether design changes are needed and to assist in the development of material models. Ericka travels frequently and has even had the opportunity to witness some of these impact events firsthand. 

When she first returned to Rapid City, there was no space available at Ascent. Ericka secured an office in town but struggled early on with the isolation. Once an office became available at Ascent Innovation Center, she jumped at the opportunity. 

“Having a little bit of community is great,” Ericka says. A self-described “social animal,” she enjoys the camaraderie with the other tenants, many of whom are engineers like her. She loves planning events and has been responsible for organizing an office olympics tournament for the building. “That allows me to flex my creativity and provides me with a captive audience,” she says with a laugh. 

Other benefits of the incubator include ready access to a pipeline of student talent; in fact, the very first intern Ericka worked with ended up becoming the very first full-time employee hired for ARA’s Rapid City office. There’s also the invaluable support from the staff at Ascent Innovation - Terri Haverly, the Executive Director, and Mitch Nachtigall, the Client Manager – as well her neighbors at Ascent. ARA has been able to team up with a couple of other companies within Ascent on shared proposals, and when Ericka mentioned the need for a machinist, she learned that the organization next door had a lathe she was welcome to use. Without a doubt, she counts the collaborative opportunities Ascent provides as one of the most compelling reasons to take advantage of space in the incubator, and credits Mitch with creating more personal and professional opportunities for the companies who work there. 

As for the future of her hometown, Ericka is feeling positive. She has witnessed a lot of changes over the years, and feels Rapid City is headed in the right direction—especially with the arrival of the new B-21 Raider at Ellsworth, a move she hopes will create a larger engineering community and a new group of support contractors to help grow the city’s infrastructure. 

“Rapid has so much to offer,” she says. “It’s just letting the rest of the world see it and helping people who want to be here see the opportunity, as well. As long as we’re intentional with the growth, we’ll be good.”


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