Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pa., is planning a thermoforming center that backers say will be the first of its kind in the country.
``We have endeavored to cover the plastics industry in terms of our teaching,'' said Hank White, director of the college's plastics manufacturing center, in a July 17 telephone interview. ``Basically what we have is injection molding and extrusion. About five years ago we got a National Science Foundation grant for blow molding. We added a rotomolding center of excellence.
``The one piece that was missing and it's a piece that's growing is thermoforming,'' White said.
Penn College, a special-purpose affiliate for applied technology education of Pennsylvania State University, is home to one of only five U.S. plastics education programs accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology of Baltimore. About 130 students are enrolled in plastics-related degree programs, White said.
The planned 1,800-square-foot thermoforming lab, to be located in a wing of the school's advanced technology and health sciences building, will be used by thermoformers, sheet extruders, resin suppliers, mold builders and equipment manufacturers.
``We're designing this special equipment that will totally serve the industry. We intend to serve the entire U.S. in terms of what the industry has, and the latest technology available,'' White said. The school is drafting specifications for machinery and plans to have purchased and installed a thermoforming line by January, he said.
According to a strategic plan released in February, the thermoforming center will have five specific programs aimed at improving the thermoforming industry:
* Reduction of material usage through tooling advancements and processing control.
* Advanced theory development of mold temperature control and its effects.
* Optimization of vacuum/air to allow faster forming, better part definition and faster cycles.
* Research and evaluation of the impact of recycling material properties and optimal recycling capability.
* Biomaterials development research.
Operating costs for the thermoforming center still are being determined, according to White.
``I can say that we will need operating funds for staffing, facilities and expenses, etc.,'' he said. White said the plastics program will offer discounted memberships to partner companies at the gold ($10,000) and silver ($5,000) levels.
White said Penn College is seeking at least five member companies during the thermoforming center's first year of operations, with a goal of 10-15 by the third year to make the operation entirely self-sustaining.
Support for the center has come from a variety of industry and educational sources. The Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania recently awarded Penn College $75,000 toward the center's development. The Society of Plastics Engineers thermoforming division gave $10,000 and the SPE Foundation has given about $6,500.
Corporate funding has come primarily from two thermoformers: $10,000 from McClarin Plastics Inc. in Hanover, Pa., a maker of parts for industrial equipment, recreational and medical applications; and $5,000 over three years from Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Fabri-Kal Corp., which makes plastics packaging and has a plant in Hazleton, Pa.
``Every industry has a need to have a central location where they can mix academics and advanced technology, so that the young people that are coming into the industry have been exposed to opportunities to further develop new techniques and new materials,'' said Roger Kipp, McClarin's vice president of marketing and engineering.
``At the same time, those of us who have been in the industry for many years have a place to go to do some R&D work,'' Kipp said in a July 30 telephone interview.
Kipp, a past chairman of SPE's thermoforming division, said the division has helped more than 15 schools obtain machinery at reduced cost, including San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif.; University of Wisconsin-Platteville; Millersville University in Millersville, Pa.; and Gettysburg High School in Gettysburg, Pa.
According to figures provided by Penn College, there are 225-250 companies in North America with industrial thermoforming operations, most with sales of less than $10 million annually and with limited opportunities to partner with research labs. In 2007, the estimated total value of the companies' output was $13 billion, with packaging making up about 80 percent of the business and industrial products the remainder.
Kipp said Penn College's thermoforming center will fill a critical need in the industry, especially in the area of bio-based materials.
``If this gets successful, maybe there needs to be one in the Midwest; maybe there needs to be one on the West Coast. But you have to have the first one,'' he said.