Engineering graduate school with little research
I've been considering applying to graduate school for a PhD in mechanical engineering, with a focus in energy/power plants/etc. First a little background about myself. I graduated in 2009 from Lafayette College in mechanical engineering with a 3.3 overall, 3.54 in major and about a 3.5 my last two years of college (I had little interest in some of the required "liberal arts" classes and regrettably didn't take them too seriously). Summer freshmen year I worked at a machine shop as basically machine operator, sophomore summer was spent at a die casting plant working on processes and lean manufacturing projects, and summer junior year was spent at the Department of Defense doing some (read: not much, no publications) research on energetic materials and explosives. I did no additional research at the time because my main goal was getting into the workforce after school. Also, being that Lafayette College is undergraduate only, there were limited research opportunities on campus. I assisted in a few of the labs for one of the manufacturing courses, mostly because I had some experience in that area. I also worked part time (~20 hrs a week) throughout most of my college career at different machine shops.
Fast forward 3 years, I've been with an oilfield services company since graduating working in southern Louisiana. Most of my work deals with deepwater drilling projects. I have done no research with my work. A lot of the work is running hydraulic simulations, temperature modeling, working in conjunction with our lab to develop appropriate fluid systems for the well, and customer relations.
I'm considering applying to mid-tier schools in the northeast like Lehigh, Penn State, Steven's, Rutgers, U of Pitt, possibly Cornell. I'm taking the GRE next month and have already found one former professor who would write a recommendation letter (I helped him with a few labs and took a few high level engineering electives with him). I'm also trying to get my former boss at the DoD who is a PhD to write a letter. At this point in my career it's very difficult to do any research partly because of the type of job I have and partly because of my location. I would like to start in the fall of 2013 and was wondering what my chances of getting into some of these programs and getting some financial assistance were. I liked the work I did at the DoD and am looking for something more challenging - I don't want to get into management.
Sorry for the long post, but I wanted to get most of the info out there everyone needed in one post. So besides knocking the GREs out of the park which won't help THAT much, getting some strong recommendations and writing a strong personal statement, what should I focus on? Will my industry experience help or hinder my chances? Does my lack of undergrad research throw up a huge red flag, even though at the time I wanted to go straight into the workforce? Is my cumulative GPA going to be a red flag? I know they look more at your in major grades and your last two years, but even still I don't think a 3.5 is that stellar.
I appreciate everyone's input.