Oak Brook, Ill. — High-tech companies like Google and Intel need lots of engineers, and they have strong relationships with colleges and universities. But John Beaumont said the plastics industry is lagging.
"What do these industries do? They work closely with academia. We don't respect academia," said Beaumont, who taught at Penn State Erie for 25 years, then retired and launched a technical skills education program called the American Injection Molding Institute in Erie, Pa.
"These companies drive universities to do relative stuff," Beaumont said in a keynote speech at IMTECH in Oak Brook. "They want fresh blood coming with new ideas, that can come to their companies and hit the floor running. This industry does not do a good job of that."
Injection molding may not equate to Google, Beaumont said. But he added, "Are we really that sophisticated? I would argue that injection molding a part is probably the most complicated manufacturing method on the planet. I would argue that with anyone."
But Beaumont said molders don't realize that. They mold parts every day. But think about it, he said: Molders take a non-Newtonian fluid — the plastic melt — and inject it into the mold through tiny runners at pressures of 30,000 or 40,000 psi.
"Under those pressures, you're putting tremendous energy into the material. Shear. So we get these really complex thermodynamics," he said.
Crystallization. Morphology. Orientation. Residual stresses. Shrinkage. Warpage. It's a complicated process.
But the way knowledge is transferred to people in the plastics industry has not kept up. Yes, you now can get an engineering degree in plastics. But overall, it's been a slow evolution process on the shop floor, with new workers following veterans around to learn the job.
There are training programs for running a CAD system or setting up a mold. "A trained person will be more efficient. That's important to all of us in manufacturing," Beaumont said.
But "education" is different than "training," he said.
Training tells you what to do. Education, Beaumont said, teaches critical thinking skills and gives you alternatives to try different solutions to molding problems.
"We need to have that confidence and deeper understanding of what we do," he said.
Beaumont said the injection molding process is way too complex for single solutions.
"In plastics, there aren't too many things where I can say, 'Do it that way and it's gonna work,'" he said.
Beaumont said he gave plenty of tours to plastics veterans over the years at Penn State Erie. Many of them said they wish they had that type of educational opportunity. And even today, only about 250 earn degrees in plastics engineering each year.
"I found myself reflecting on this, and I found there is nothing for these people. You get a degree. Or you go to training classes," he said.
That's why Beaumont started AIM. "The idea was to bridge that gap," he said. Students alternate between courses at AIM in Erie, then go back and work at their companies and take online courses to review the material, then they return to Erie, and so on.
That process works better than traditional short sources and seminars, he said, because it helps students retain the knowledge and apply it directly to their jobs.
Even veteran molding technicians can benefit from education, Beaumont said. He cited four main areas of materials, part design, tooling and processing.
"How comfortable are you with all four of those aspects? Because if you're not, you're only filling in pieces of the pie," he said.