Ahead of the Curve

Purdue University’s Ray W. Herrick Laboratories, a hub of industry-oriented research in areas ranging from advanced automotive technologies to “smart” buildings, turns 50 in July with an eye toward the future.

The labs were spawned from the marriage of two distinctly different disciplines at a time when interdisciplinary research was rare. The collaboration that launched the labs was between an animal sciences professor and a mechanical engineering professor who wanted to study the effects of climate on animals. The mechanical engineering professor, William “Bill” Fontaine, mentioned the concept to Ray Herrick, the owner of Tecumseh Products, one summer while Bill was visiting Tecumseh Products to explore research relationships. Ray Herrick liked the idea and donated enough money to start the labs. Established in the 1950s, the laboratories are housed in a brick horse barn built a century ago near State Street and Russell Drive. 

“Herrick was ahead of its time, because it started as an interdisciplinary collaboration when it wasn’t fashionable to do so,” says Patricia Davies, Herrick director and professor of mechanical engineering. “Today, of course, interdisciplinary research and vital ties to industry are the foundations of Purdue’s Discovery Park, but Herrick was really founded on the same principles many years ago. And we’re still very interdisciplinary.”

Some 688 Herrick students have completed master’s and doctoral degrees. Among the research conducted at the labs are projects that involve collaborations with faculty in areas including other engineering disciplines: speech, language, hearing sciences, and psychology. The Herrick family is still involved with the laboratories. Ray’s great-grandson, Todd, through the Herrick Foundation, is sponsoring some of the research in thermal sciences done by ME professors Eckhard Groll and James Braun.

Plans are under way for a new building to be located adjacent to Herrick that will house offices and experimental facilities for more than 90 graduate students, 25 faculty, post-docs and visiting researchers as well as technical and administrative staff. The building itself will also serve as a living laboratory for its researchers.

“The overall concept behind the new Herrick labs is to go ‘beyond green’ and learn through research how to further increase energy efficiency and lower environmental impact but also integrate occupant comfort and productivity into building design objectives so that you design spaces that people actually want to be in,” Davies says. “The living lab is important, because we want to be able to demonstrate that the concepts work and identify where the problems are, so that they can be addressed.”

–E. V.