At the heart of Purdue’s research and education efforts is the role the University plays in equipping the future leaders and skilled workforce in advanced manufacturing.
“If you want to have a significant impact as a land-grant university, you need a vision to translate the discoveries in the research laboratory to the marketplace, particularly in manufacturing,” says R. Byron Pipes, the John L. Bray Distinguished Professor of Engineering and executive director of the Composites Manufacturing and Simulation Center (CMSC). The center is based within the $50 million Indiana Manufacturing Institute in Purdue Research Park, opened in 2016, where it shares space with the Indiana Next-Generation Manufacturing Competitiveness Center, as well as other public and private organizations with related missions.
The CMSC has built on Purdue’s role in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Initiative for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI). The University was selected to participate in a five-year, $240 million IACMI program aimed at energy-efficient automobiles and at wind energy. Indiana is leading design modeling and simulation across all technologies and all applications of advanced composite materials, Pipes says.
The center offers modeling and simulation tools to help address the need to shorten the development cycle and decrease the cost of composites manufacturing while allowing more time for innovation throughout the entire supply chain, he says.
A key provision within IACMI is workforce development and a strategy to include five major research centers located primarily in the Midwest since nearly 70 percent of U.S. auto production and more than 700 composite companies currently reside there, Pipes says.
“The USA’s success in being competitive in the global economy forces research universities to impact value-added, labor-efficient processes that lead to higher-paying jobs and a stronger manufacturing economy,” he says.
More than two-thirds of Indiana workers lack a college degree at a time when the state faces a serious shortage of skilled production workers, according to Brian Burton, president and CEO of the Indiana Manufacturers Association. And over half of job applicants who are rejected for manufacturing positions in Indiana lack basic technical training and problem-solving skills and have inadequate reading, writing and communication abilities.
Over the next 10 years, the IACMI estimates, more than 30,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs could be created in the fiber-reinforced polymer industry. During that same period, private capital investment also is expected for boosting production capacity for the carbon fiber and carbon fiber-reinforced polymer sectors.
“This initiative offers an unparalleled approach to technical education and workforce development by bringing together community colleges and universities, state economic development organizations, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnerships to address the challenges of developing a highly skilled manufacturing workforce for supporting the anticipated growth in advanced composites across the U.S.,” Pipes says.
Purdue’s composites team effort builds on major government programs and many tight industry partnerships. The team is exceptional in this country in how deeply it integrates research in volume manufacturing practices with science-based simulation.
Developing a New Language of Innovation
“Simulation is the language of manufacturing innovation,” says Pipes. “We are developing the language of the innovation, not just the process. We build mathematical models of the real physics in the manufacturing of composites. When you put our models together, you have a virtual manufacturing process that you can run from a computer, and it can tell you how to optimize the process to give you the best performance characteristics of the material or manufacturing speeds or whatever you wish.”
Jan-Anders Mansson, Distinguished Professor of Materials and Chemical Engineering and team leader of the Advanced Composites Manufacturing preeminent team, concurs. “What researchers need is daily interaction between the two sides, simulation and manufacturing,” Mansson says. “Here we are small enough to meet each other every day and talk, but we are big enough to have critical mass.”
He emphasizes that the IACMI work has helped the CMSC establish a strong base of dedicated research staff, a resource that some competing research centers lack. “All too often in academia, once a given project is over, everything is scattered, the graduate students leave with their competencies, and it’s very difficult to build knowledge over time,” Mansson says. “With the CMSC and the preeminent team, we have something sustainable to build on.”
While carton-fiber composites are used to make IndyCars superstrong and superfast, those same techniques don’t translate into creating cost effective and energy efficient consumer vehicles.
Although composite materials are already found in many car models, these components typically were developed empirically rather than grounded in science-based simulation. “Part of the barrier to adoption has been that there was really no platform for understanding the new methods for materials,” he says. “Now we are putting in the scientific underpinnings for the simulation tools that are required for designing the new material forms.”
Dow engineered a carbon-fiber epoxy composite which could be produced in minutes, with a built-in mold release. (The mold doesn’t need to be coated to protect against the part’s epoxy, and the part pops right out of the mold.)
“In this project, we’re making real parts,” Pipes says. “We designed the material and the manufacturing process, and we are carrying out the manufacturing at a plant in Huntington, Ind.”
In addition to creating new auto parts, researchers need to consider how they will be maintained, Mansson points out. Composite materials that support the car’s structure, for instance, need regular safety inspections. Mechanics know how to check metals for corrosion, leaks or other problems, “but they have no way to check delamination in the composite,” he says. “We need another health monitoring system built into the car safety application.”
Overall, the big push to advance automotive materials carries significant economic implications for the State of Indiana, Pipes stresses. “We’re offering the most modern manufacturing methods that will lead to the vehicle of the future, and we’re developing it here in a state with a huge stake in the success of the manufacturing industries,” he says. “It’s really important for us to invest in the technology that is needed for the next steps that will lead to the vehicle manufacturing of the future.”
Lifting Off in Aerospace
Many of today’s commercial airliners, such as the Boeing 787, are built with carbon-fiber composites. The preeminent team is helping Boeing to design its next all-composite plane, and speed of manufacture is front and center. “Boeing can’t make airplanes fast enough, so they’ve asked us to help,” as Pipes puts it.
Boeing planes recently incorporated small complex composite structures, largely for holding luggage racks and other interior pieces. “The Federal Aviation Administration now requires testing of every part before it goes on the airplane, so Boeing engaged us about three years ago to develop simulations for design and manufacturing of these parts, and our models and simulations are now used for their design that will avoid proof testing and thereby save significantly,” Pipes says.
Boeing also has more blue-sky visions for future products to churn out in dramatically higher numbers. One concept, for example, is individualized mass transportation by air. “The idea is more or less that you arrive in Chicago and you get into a drone that takes six people where they want to go,” Mansson says.
Whether or not such bold schemes eventually come true as envisioned, they offer worthy goals for Boeing to consider — along with massive changes in production. “How do you change a world-leading manufacturer that makes 200 or 300 pieces a year to make one million pieces a year?” he asks. “It’s a totally new way of looking at automation.”
Living in the Material World of the Future
Around the globe, manufacturing is seeing an upswing of academic interest, Mansson says. “People finally started to realize that manufacturing is where we create many of our jobs. And if you have jobs, that solves many of the problems for society today.”
Programs such as the Wabash Heartland Innovation Network, funded by the Lilly Endowment, are forming commercial ecosystems for job creation around academic research and development. And Purdue is exceptionally good at making handshakes with industry, Mansson says. “But for us to be interesting as a university, we also have to be sure that we work with good fundamental knowledge underneath.”
These competencies are needed to keep the United States in the global game. For example, today it often takes this country 15 years to move a technology from lab to actual planes. “Other countries might do that in half the time, starting with the same technology but having a product on the market before we have it,” Mansson says. “How can we take the development time down from 15 to five years, and make our industry more competitive?”
The key ingredient is the students, drawn from many schools in the College of Engineering and Purdue Polytechnic Institute, who not only bring exceptional smarts and skills to the task but also are accustomed to thinking of organizing themselves in teams.
“Today’s students are totally connected; knowledge is a commodity for them,” Mansson remarks. “Knowledge is important, but we have to get them to be curiosity driven, to raise them to the next level.
“They also are green environmental thinkers in a forward-looking way,” he emphasizes. “We can motivate them by being on the positive trend of developing society in a sustainable way, and that is how we attract them.”