When looking to understand the next world-changing material or build the latest product, industry leaders and laboratories don’t always have the means of tackling the engineering challenges that may crop up. Enter facilities like the National Polymer Innovation Center (NPIC), a contract service facility at the University of Akron, which has a mission to be a leading resource in advanced manufacturing and material characterization by being a portal to help solve material analysis and processing challenges. What makes working with NPIC unique is its staff and the perspectives and expertise they bring to every project, as well as the opportunities NPIC provides to industry leaders, laboratory managers, and students, bringing hands-on education with state-of-the-art equipment.
First conceived of by professor Mukerrem (Miko) Cakmak in the mid-2000s, the original vision for NPIC was of a facility capable of advanced manufacturing that could both work on research projects as well as up-skill workers in industry techniques. After its completion in 2010, NPIC has grown to include pilot-scale processing lines, material characterization services, and advanced manufacturing options for supporting both industry and national laboratories. Additionally, NPIC has fostered a close relationship with the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering at the University of Akron. In so doing, NPIC began to integrate some of its lines into graduate lab courses, helping develop the next generation of researchers with hands-on training.
Today, NPIC staff work with businesses to provide processing and analytical capabilities, as well as the needed expertise to help solve any materials engineering challenges brought to them. “Often, the clients have a particular technique in mind, but we always hold a dialog with them to learn what the challenge is and recommend the best path forward,” says Jason Randall, PhD, director of operations at NPIC. “Our processing and advanced manufacturing capabilities include a multilayer film extrusion line, a biaxial film stretcher, as well as multiple solution casting lines with added capabilities such as electrospinning nanofibers into the casting, or orienting particles with electrical or magnetic fields prior to cure.”
When it comes to identifying the characteristics of materials, Randall adds that the NPIC team has in-house X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, atomic force microscopy, surface profilometry, nanoindentation, Raman spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction techniques, and micro-computed tomography (micro-CT), to name a few of their capabilities.
With the help of its experts and cutting-edge technology, NPIC not only offers small and medium businesses access to equipment and expertise they may not have, but also provides larger industry clients and national labs a space to trial ideas while avoiding excessive capital expenditure. In addition, students are given the chance to assist with projects and can gain experience addressing real-world difficulties of the industry. NPIC represents more than just a simple contract service provider; it is a nexus point for industry and academia.
Staying on the cutting edge
While the facility and technology offered at NPIC is impressive, what truly sets the lab apart from competitors is the connection NPIC has to the world-renowned faculty in the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. “For large projects requiring more in-depth research, we are able to connect industrial clients directly to the relevant experts in that field,” adds Randall. “We also have the ability to access any other campus equipment resources available, such as the NMRs in the Magnetic Resonance Center, or the equipment in one of our sister operations, such as the National Center for Education and Research on Corrosion and Materials Performance.”
“For large projects requiring more in-depth research, we are able to connect industrial clients directly to the relevant experts in that field.”
This collaborative culture means that the types of projects that NPIC can take on are diverse and can be more than simply testing new materials. As one example of the unique work being done at NPIC, Jiansheng Feng, PhD, instrumentation scientist, recalls a project where he helped explore the evolution and adaptations of insect mouthparts. “In collaboration with another university, we performed nanoindentation tests on prestomal teeth from various species of flies to quantify their hardness and stiffness,” says Feng. “These mechanical property measurements, in conjunction with morphological information from electron microscopy and chemical characterization from fluorescence microscopy, are then correlated with the insects' feeding habits to elucidate the evolutionary adaptation of their mouthparts.” By keeping an open perspective and finding novel ways to tackle the projects brought to them, the researchers at NPIC provide a valuable service.
Overcoming challenges and looking to the future
While proving to be an exciting and innovative space over the past decade, NPIC has had challenges, especially within the last few years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, when taking on a new project, researchers at NPIC like to bring customers on-site to observe their trials and make adjustments as needed. In recent months, however, this has been nearly impossible due to the pandemic. “For some clients who were willing, we proceeded with their runs and relayed information through pictures, calls, and video so they still had visibility into the process,” says Randall. “[The pandemic] also complicated lab classes for students. Some training could take place with social distancing, but other activities had to be postponed or reworked.”
Randall also indicates that, because of the unique position NPIC occupies as both a service and educational facility, there are often difficulties balancing the needs of students, researchers, and clients. “Lab classes, student research assistance, and contract testing are all important to the mission and all have different metrics for success,” adds Randall.
Despite these difficulties, the faculty and staff at NPIC have big plans for the future of the facility. A major immediate goal is to start a pilot program that will offer graduate students an internship at NPIC. “The internship would be an educational opportunity for the student while it would help us increase our bandwidth for client projects,” says Randall. In addition, the managerial staff at NPIC are hoping to increase the center’s involvement in undergraduate research. In longer-term plans, NPIC seeks to stay on the cutting edge technologically, while also developing future capabilities that are founded on the scale-up needs of faculty projects and demand needs of industrial clients.
Even as NPIC continues to grow and connect with larger and more diverse projects, the faculty and staff haven’t forgotten their core values and goals. While they represent a facility that seeks to improve access to material characterization and advanced manufacturing for industrial leaders and researchers alike, the NPIC staff members are first and foremost part of an educational institution. Therefore, the NPIC team has a deep commitment to educating the next generation of researchers. “The best part of the work is in training the new students on equipment and helping them with their research, as we are first an educational institution. A close second is solving new challenges for our clients and helping their projects move forward,” says Randall.