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Behrend Campus Advances Plastics Manufacturing

Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, is secluded in its wooded setting a few miles from the blue-collar industrial city of Erie, Pennsylvania. Behrend takes pride in the practical hands-on approach to educating a cohort of trained graduates ready and eager to work in advanced manufacturing environments at Apple, Boeing, Tesla, and other major companies.

It is a primarily undergraduate campus with a few Master’s programs, including the Master’s in Manufacturing Management, a cross-cutting collaboration between the School of Engineering and the Black School of Business. The undergraduate Interdisciplinary Business with Engineering Studies major in the Black School of Business requires two years of engineering mathematics and science to prepare students to work in the business side of a technical company.

The science of plastic manufacturing

Dr. Alicyn Rhoades, an assistant professor of engineering at Penn State Behrend, is immersed in the culture of plastics manufacturing, with a background in various roles in industry before joining the Penn State faculty. But she is also advancing the science of plastics manufacturing, supported by a five-year, $500,000 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation.

“Right now, in manufacturing of anything polymeric, the process is often simulated on a computer before any physical parts are actually made,” Rhoades explained. “Because of the intricate geometries and expensive machining required to physically make a steel mold or die in which the polymer will solidify, the costs are outrageous. So it’s best to simulate the mold-filling first, to make sure the mold design will work.”

For example, for a relatively simple part of an automobile, such as a back bumper with some curvature, a mold can cost around $700,000. Prototyping several versions of the part using a steel mold would add several months to the production schedule.

“Companies are losing time and money on their iterative processes. They need more accuracy in their manufacturing simulation and that’s why they come to us.”

Rhoades said that it is the nature of polymeric materials to shrink and warp as they transition from the melt stage to the solid stage. This can be a critical problem in aerospace and medical applications where precision is crucial.   

As many plastics manufacturing gurus will explain, for decades the manufacturing process of polymer injection molding has remained more art than science. Rhoades and her team are bringing science into the process.

“For the past 80 or so years, polymer crystallization has been studied as if the polymer were formed in a melted puddle, as if no other forces except gravity were affecting the final shape. Researchers would heat the polymer to its melting point and watch it cool under a microscope.  Relatively little attention has been given to the effects of shear flow on the polymer,” she said. 

That’s not how it works in the manufacturing process. Under pressure and subject to shear forces, everything about the solidification process changes. Yet the math developed to predict polymer crystallization has not progressed to account for a dynamic process. Collaborations between Rhoades group and Dr. Ralph Colby’s group (UP-MatSE) are underway to develop new models that account for flow factors as well as rapid thermal changes that can create gradients in the final product.

“When hot plastic hits cold steel, it cools really fast. Traditionally, polymer crystalization is studied at a cooling rate of 10 degrees C per minute. We are studying solidification between 1000 and 10 degrees C per second. That makes a big difference,” she said.

By plugging in the flow factor and the rapid thermal transfer factor into their simulations, the results change dramatically and start to look like what actually takes place in a manufacturing setting. This could potentially save companies such as GM or SKF many weeks of iteration and many tens of thousands of dollars on each new part. From NSF’s standpoint, this work provides a fundamental understanding of a process that could be applied to multiple types of manufacturing.

“NSF cares about the impact of their research investments on the economy. We can draw a pretty direct line between what we are doing and the impact it can have,” Rhoades said.

Behrend’s open-lab philosophy

Amy Bridger is the senior director of Corporate Strategy and External Engagement at the Behrend campus. She is responsible for the interactions between Behrend and the corporate world, including partnerships between companies and Behrend’s research programs.

“Behrend has a long history of applied research,” she said. “We’ve been trying to formalize that in something called the ‘open laboratory.’ It’s a philosophy where we have a strong focus on engaging our faculty and students with industry to grow our programs. We find that our undergraduates, if they are well mentored by faculty, have tremendous capability to develop products and services and perform a research function, even on a baccalaureate level.”

Behrend’s research park, called Knowledge Park, brings manufacturing companies, both small and international in scope, into a close relationship with faculty and students. In the newly opened Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center, a 60,000 square foot building that houses the mechanical and industrial engineering faculty, half of the space is allotted to industry tenants.

“In 2010-11, we decided to take a more active role in the Park and tie it to our mission of teaching and research,” Bridger said. “We’ve tried in our open lab initiative to reduce the barriers to working with industry.”

With around 1500 students, Behrend’s School of Engineering is the largest at the 4700-student campus and the second-largest engineering school in the Penn State system, according to Greg Dillon, professor of engineering and a faculty member of the Materials Research Institute.

“This industry connection started 20 years ago with capstone projects for seniors,” Dillon said. “A $1500 donation to the school funds maybe three students working on an industry project. Capstone Design has over 70 projects each year. It’s similar to the Learning Factory at University Park.”

Open-lab innovation at Behrend means they are open to working with business. And although companies can be present in the engineering labs, the students need to have a learning experience and do the research themselves. “They have to discover and create something,” Dillon explained.

IP policy attracts companies

Since Penn State as a university decided to change its intellectual property policy to be more attractive to industry, Behrend has seen the fruits of that change to a far greater extent than anywhere else in the University.

SKF, the largest bearing manufacturer in the world, decided to open its first US -based innovation center in Knowledge Park. TruckLite, a company that manufacturers truck lighting, opened an Innovation Center at Knowledge Park in order to be close to Behrend faculty members.

“We have the largest academic plastics lab in the U.S., likely the world,” Bridger said. “And what’s nice about that lab is that it derived from industry wanting a program, and then we built a lab to support the curriculum that industry had asked for.”

With the recent addition of a $900,000-plus environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM), acquired through a proposal to the National Science Foundation by Dillon, Rhoades and science faculty, the Behrend campus will provide a resource unique to the region.

“Lord Corporation, which has an amazing R&D facility in our area, doesn’t have anything like this,” Bridger said. “We encourage companies and other universities to come in and use that instrument.”

The ESEM has the capability to be used in both science and engineering, to look at live biological samples or to study nanoscale defects in polymers, for example.    

“We keep a long list of the equipment that industry say they need. If enough companies show an interest and it fits with the curriculum, that’s what we will focus our grants on. Our vision is that if we get these key pieces of equipment, we can draw in a lot of companies to work with us at Knowledge Park,” Bridger said.

Contact Prof. Rhoades at Contact Amy Bridger at Contact Prof. Dillon at