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Nanotechnology for Low-Cost Tooling

Third Frontier Award to UDRI Designed to Help Ohio Keep Competitive in Tooling Industry

University of Dayton Research Institute researchers were awarded $2.1 million in Ohio Third Frontier funds today. The Wright Project award, announced by Gov. Taft, will be used for nanotechnology research aimed at helping Ohio regain its footing as a leader in the tooling industry and to protect Ohio manufacturers against international competition from developing countries.

The goal of the Center for Low-Cost Nanocomposite Tooling is to develop low-cost tooling products made with newly commercialized polymer nanocomposites, said UDRI composites engineer Richard Garozzo, director of the Wright Project. “Conventional tooling materials such as steel and aluminum are costly and time-consuming to machine,” Garozzo said. “Often the cost of tooling precludes the manufacture of necessary prototype parts for new applications that could lead to major new commercial products and applications.”

While plastic tools and molds prove effective to a degree for prototyping, they aren’t strong or durable enough for all applications or for full production mode. The answer lies in polymer nanocomposites, which can be used to create low-cost, non-metal tools with tailored mechanical, thermal and electrical properties for a variety of applications, from injection molding to sheet-metal stamping, Garozzo said.

“The overall goal is to protect Ohio manufacturers against international competition from developing countries. In 1998, Dayton, Cleveland, Akron, Toledo and Cincinnati were among the largest tooling and machining centers in the United States. Over the past seven years, however, Ohio’s tooling and machining capabilities have been dramatically reduced because of the increased outsourcing of work to countries that have lower labor costs.”

Outsourcing for tooling is a problem not only for Ohio’s tool and die industry, but for the rest of Ohio industry as well because of a cascade effect, Garozzo added. When tools and dies are made in other countries, eventually the associated part manufacturing and assembly may also be outsourced. “We are seeking a technology that will result in significantly lower tool and die costs and drastically shorter lead times. For example, the total time to make large production tools could be reduced from 26 weeks for metal tooling to four weeks for polymer nanocomposite tooling, with an accompanying cost savings of up to 75 percent. This could be the competitive advantage that will allow Ohio to successfully compete in today’s economy.”

The project, whose collaborators include Ohio University, American Trim in Lima, Ohio, and the Edison Materials Technology Center and National Composite Center in Dayton, dovetails perfectly with the work of the Third Frontier-supported Center for Multifunctional Polymer Nanomaterials and Devices, said Brian Rice, UDRI research engineer and UD site director for CMPND. “The whole thrust of CMPND is to manufacture parts with polymer nanocomposites,” Rice said.

Rice cited collaborator American Trim, which makes metal-stamped parts, as an Ohio company that will largely benefit from the new technology. “For instance, to create a control panel for a kitchen appliance, a piece of sheet metal is printed, stamped out and molded to the appropriate form. The process requires about 10 tools which progressively change the shape of the metal. Those tools are extremely expensive – some can be as much as $1 million each.”

Companies such as American Trim sometimes turn to plastic to create prototype tools, which can be made quickly and cheaply. “A plastic tool can be fabricated in a small fraction of the time it takes to machine a steel tool,” Rice said. “The problem is that conventional plastics don’t work for all applications, and are not durable enough to hold up in the long run.”

“Because any prototype part made for any application first requires a mold, and because the cost of steel molds can be prohibitive, polymer nanocomposite molding compounds represent an equally durable but affordable alternative.”

Other collaborators include PolymerOhio in Westerville, the Ohio Polymer Strategy Council, and Ketco Inc. and the Advanced Integrated Manufacturing Center in Dayton.

March 30, 2006

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