Manufacturing Research: Academics for Industry

By: Glenn S. Daehn, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, The Ohio State University

Manufacturing research – my area of expertise – is an academic pursuit buffeted by all kinds of forces in universities. I love working in this area because we are involved in solving real problems for industry and we can be endlessly creative in developing new methods, just so long as we do not violate the laws of physics. We also have to be very mindful about the laws of economics which all-too-often govern those who will implement new processes.

I contend that manufacturing is one of the most globally important, if under-appreciated, areas that one can work in. If we look at energy use, about one-third of our energy is spent on transportation and about another one-third goes to industrial processes.  The last third goes to heating and lighting our homes and businesses.  Manufacturing research immediately addresses the first two of these issues by finding ways to build lighter-weight vehicles while using more energy efficient processes.  Manufacturing research and development will also be required enable new, industrially-friendly products.  For example, high-strength safe tanks for compressed natural gas in vehicles, can enhance energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but new, low-cost production methods are needed. This kind of work is often behind the scenes, but pays huge dividends in energy use reductions and  overall sustainability.

While I love the technical challenges and opportunity to do really wild things in the lab, manufacturing research can be difficult. Goal-oriented manufacturing research has not been funded well by the U.S. federal government for the past several decades (but there is hope this is changing). Also, the manufacturing field is often not respected by my purist academic colleagues, as it does not resemble fundamental science. Manufacturing research can impact important industrial problems.  This can be constraining and I’m forced to spend lots of time with administrators and lawyers discussing and negotiating contractual and non-disclosure details.

My group was most fortunate to receive support from the Alcoa Foundation to allow us to conduct research in the design and manufacturing of lightweight multi-material vehicle structures. Through collaboration with Professor Tony Luscher’s group, we are emphasizing the use of sustainable materials and energy efficient processes to produce vehicles that will consume less fuel.  Some of our research results can be found on our site, Sustainable Design and Manufacture.

The fact that our research can have some commercial value can sometimes be burdensome. My administration reminds me that to maximize possible commercial value, my students, collaborators and I should regularly document our most important ideas and not disclose some of our most exciting discoveries until we have developed and executed a plan for protecting our intellectual property. Of course, we would like to see our results contribute to jobs and economic development in our region, and it would be great to see direct revenue flow to the university (and us). On the other hand, the job of an academic is to teach and share information. It is also true that any success my group has had in developing and forming methods is due in substantial part to ideas and inspiration from others, be it through conversations with collaborators or from more formal conferences and journals.

My utopian ideal of an academic’s role in manufacturing is to share ideas with the world in as broad a way as possible in order to allow people all over the world to build better, stronger, and lighter components, resulting in more sustainable vehicles and processes that consume less energy and have lower carbon footprints than current generations of vehicles. My mantra here is “Teach Globally and Build Locally.” With this, everyone wins. Trade balances can be evened out and we can limit the burden on energy sources and reduce carbon emissions into our shared atmosphere. And, like all kinds of information sharing, this is already taking place and the world is becoming a better place because of it. I am grateful for support like that from the Alcoa Foundation that has allowed my group to work in this mode. I wish we could work on gifts and develop this kind of karma all the time.

I am committed to staying active in the important area of manufacturing research over the long haul.  It’s too important to ignore.  I know to keep improving on the sustainability of product life cycles we will also need to continue to use market-based and lawyer-inclusive ways of funding research. We just have to find ways to balance lawyers and karma.

Glenn S. Daehn leads an academic group that largely works in manufacturing research in the Materials Science and Engineering department at the Ohio State University

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