Composite Materials Engineering (CME) student Ryan Bruesewitz works on setting up a new Intron tensile tester, one of the many new pieces of equipment obtained by Winona State University’s CME program this year.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
For returning students at Winona State University’s Composite Materials Engineering (CME) program, a new school year means new toys. Since 2016, the CME program has added more than $1 million worth ofstate-of-the-art equipment, allowing prospective engineers to get hands-on with some of the industry’s most important technology.
According to Keith Dennehy, a professor in the CME program, students are taught to use each piece of equipment during classes their junior year and then given the option to use them in their final senior design class.
“First students get an introduction to the equipment, and then the opportunity to use it later in the curriculum,” Dennehy said. “On the filament winder, which was up and running last year, they wound some carbon fiber epoxy tubes and incorporated them into a design of a folding camping stool.”
Most of the equipment falls under two categories — manufacturing and testing. Some new pieces, like the Markforged Mark Two 3D printer and the Milacron Magna T55 injection molding press, are used to create materials to be used in the production of designs. Others, such as the FEI Q250 scanning electron microscope (SEM) and the Instron universal testing system, are used by students to test individual parts and make sure each element meets common testing standards.
The new acquisitions are less expansions of the department than they are updates. With technology developing constantly, Dennehy said, the department has to keep up, but most of the time the biggest change is in the control system. For example, the old injection molder the department had been using was analog, so all adjustments and parameters would need to be set using dials and manual settings. With the new Magna T55, everything is digital and easily editable on a screen.
The equipment isn’t entirely for the students, either, Dennehy explained. The campus also houses the organization COMTEC, which employs students and helps serve the region’s composite-material needs. Some companies may come to the school to test a broken part or to do some minor manufacturing. Students are able to work on real-life CME projects outside their class time and get paid for their work, which Dennehy explained has been constant since the program’s inception.
“Since the late 1980s, the number of projects on an annual basis is over 100,” Dennehy stated.
Of course, these pieces of equipment are by no means cheap — the SEM alone retails for more than $300,000. But thanks to the Minnesota State Leveraged Equipment Funding Program (MSLEF), which started in 2012, the CME program was able to secure the funding for a wide array of new additions.
According to Fariborz Parsi, the CME department chair, the MSLEF program provides funding for high-demand areas such as engineering and science by providing matching dollar-to-dollar funds for equipment. In other words, if the program can find a way to cover half the equipment cost, the state may fund the rest. In a time of dwindling equipment budgets at public universities, this can be a life saver.
“We don’t get any equipment budget from the university anymore. Budgets are tight all around,” Parsi said. “So we worked diligently to find partners.”
For almost all of the new equipment, aside from an injection molding press and the 3D printer, the respective manufacturers covered the remaining costs, allowing the CME program to bulk up its lab’s capabilities without breaking the bank. The 3D printer was funded entirely by the Society of Plastics Engineers Composites Division, and the injection-molding press was funded through tuition funds from students enrolled in the CME major.
Budgeting for equipment is nothing new for engineering, Parsi explained. As the field progresses, equipment must constantly be updated to keep up with industry advancements. This can be pricey, but for students, it is absolutely necessary.
In engineering, Parsi explained, equipment is the lifeblood of education. When engineering students enter the field, prospective employers often expect experience with the equipment the newcomers will be using, Parsi added. In the classroom, students can learn some of the basic techniques used, but there’s only so much one can learn from reading.
“All the classes in engineering and sciences consist of hands-on curriculum. You can’t just go and read books,” Parsi said. “We need a lot of [lab courses] to go along with the classroom to provide quality education for students.”
By finding cheaper ways to obtain equipment, the CME program is able to increase its capabilities. It is the only undergraduate program offering a bachelor of science degree in composite materials engineering in the country, and to keep up with that pedigree, Dennehy explained, the equipment must follow so graduates can be prepared for their career.
“I think the biggest impact is the equipment is the same that they’re going to work with in the industry,” Dennehy said. “They will have seen the equipment in our lab, so they’ll be well equipped to step right in.”
While the advancements to date are a boon for the department, Parsi said there is still more to come. “[Equipment] isn’t cheap. If you let things go, and that equipment breaks, you’ll have a very shallow curriculum,” Parsi said. “We’ve already requested three more pieces of equipment.”