The Future of Plastics Education

by John Kaverman, president, Pad Print Pros and Nancy Cates, contributing writer, Plastics Decorating
A 28,000-square-foot facility houses labs, classrooms and faculty offices at Ferris State. Photo courtesy of Ferris State University.

Enthusiasm for the future of the industry and a near-100 percent graduate placement rate – tempered by the reality of reduced academic funding – are among the strengths, opportunities and challenges shared by faculty and college students as they prepare to enter the plastics industry workforce. Graduates of institutions from Massachusetts to Kansas to Washington look forward to full employment with opportunities for career growth. While not every program could be profiled, an overview of what’s happening at campuses across the country is presented here.

Ferris State University

According to Robert Speirs, professor and plastics engineering technology program coordinator at Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan, program enrollment has grown from 118 to 217 students over the past five years. Graduates earn a bachelor of science degree in engineering technology. They are some of the most highly recruited among the on-campus enrollment of about 10,000, but the program has been forced to limit incoming freshman to 50 students due to funding limitations.

Ferris State’s plastics engineering technology program was founded in 1982 to fill the industry’s need for technically trained personnel. In 1998, the National Elastomer Center, a 28,000-square-foot facility, was built to house state-of-the-art labs, classrooms and faculty offices. Today, the program is one of only five of its type in the country and the largest in the United States. The National Elastomer Center also houses the university’s rubber engineering technology program, the only one of its kind in the world.

Students serve two paid internships in industry for a minimum of 10 weeks each. During these internships, students gain invaluable experience that enables them to become “go-to” employees once they enter the workforce. They also make connections that can last long after graduation.

One thing that makes the Ferris State program so popular is the university’s long-standing relationships with multinational corporations and organizations, according to the department website. The program’s partnership with Wittmann Battenfeld is one example: Two Wittmann robots and control software upgrades are consigned to the university in return for Wittmann’s access to conduct regional training sessions at the facility.

Students also are active with the Society of Plastics Engineers, and alumni with ties to SPE’s Decorating and Assembly Division have ensured Ferris State students have the opportunity to receive training in decorating and assembly topics. “In 2015, the Decorating and Assembly Division was considering ways to provide a scholarship, but was stuck on how to be sure the donation would be used for a decorating and assembly discipline. When the idea of donating a new pad printer to Ferris State arose, it was a perfect fit. The machine was purchased at cost from Innovative Marking Systems, and I provided installation and training,” explained John Kaverman, Ferris State alumni and guest lecturer.

The machine is used as part of a Plastics Decorating and Assembly course, a requirement for fourth-year students. The course provides students with a basic knowledge of secondary operations such as pad printing, hot stamping, ultrasonic welding, adhesive bonding, hot-gas welding, hot air/cold staking and packaging. Students get several hours of hands-on machine time for every hour of lecture.

Other corporate donors to Ferris State include Bekum America (blow molding), Milicron and BOY Machines (molding machines), Chase Plastics and BASF (materials), and General Motors and JW Speaker (molds).

The Ferris State program reaches out to industry professionals and alumni in the form of the Plastics Industry Advisory Board. The board, which meets at least annually, reviews enrollment and graduation criteria, as well as course outcomes, to help the university stay current with industry trends.

Penn State Behrend

Industry professionals and alumni also are an important component in the successful plastics engineering program at Penn State Behrend, Erie, Pennsylvania, according to Jonathan Meckley, program chair and associate professor of engineering.

“Other programs are typically more evenly split on all of the processes, but our program is primarily focused on injection molding,” Meckley said. “That’s the one thing that sets us apart. Local industry came to Penn State and told us that’s what they wanted to see.”

Pittsburg State University serves 70 students in its plastic engineering technology program. Photo courtesy of Pittsburg State University.

About 200 students are enrolled in the program at the 4,700-student Erie campus. Meckley said enrollment has been stable for the past three years or so but is cyclic in nature. They aren’t actively recruiting because of two vacant faculty positions. Despite the vacancies, Meckley said faculty members regularly present various continuing education classes, pulling from the local area and as far as the West Coast.

“Assembly, welding and some decorating are covered in some of the courses,” Meckley continued. “We used to have a technical elective that focused more on adhesives, plastics welding, pad printing and the like, but we don’t have the ability to put on that type of elective with faculty vacancies. They are mentioned in the courses, but there’s not a lot of depth.”

Meckley said the students receive thorough instruction on all the manufacturing components: one-third materials, one-third processing and one-third design. “It’s very hands-on, and every class has a lab. The students understand the correct way to approach manufacturing when they graduate. The course includes a ‘senior design’ or research experience, and students may do some plastics manufacturing research as undergrads, so that helps prepare them.”

Pennsylvania College of Technology

A little more than 100 students are enrolled in the program at the Williamsport, Pennsylvania, campus. Degrees offered include BS in plastics and polymer engineering technology; AAS in plastics and polymer technology.

Through coursework that emphasizes project management, collaboration, and technical training, students gain a unique and in-demand skillset. These skills will allow students to develop and design plastic materials and products used in everyday life.

“Penn College’s hands-on, ABET-accredited plastics engineering technology program combines polymer science with extensive lab experiences on industry standard equipment, all taught by full-time faculty, ” said Tim Weston, associate professor and department head for plastics engineering technology.

Shawnee State University

The 12 candidates for plastics engineering technology degrees this spring at Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, Ohio, are being wooed by more than 20 prospective employers.

“For all practical purposes, we have 100 percent placement,” said Larry Miller, department chair. “Our program is growing, with about 60 currently enrolled as majors. The plastics industry is the largest in Ohio, and we offer the only four-year plastics degree in the state.”

Miller concedes that tight budgets have affected some components of the program. “In education today, we are getting pressure to reduce the number of hours we teach. It’s very difficult to offer classes in the secondary processes (adhesives, plastics welding, pad printing, etc.). We do a little bit of those in our other classes.”

The budget outlook may be improving, since the program is gearing up for a $1.2 million capital investment to remodel facilities and update systems.

In addition to typical recruitment, the program hosts “Plastics Day” in early December. “We invite 60 to 70 high school students from around the state who want to learn more about the industry,” Miller explained. ” have sessions on part and mold design, 3D printing and a session with students running equipment to demonstrate processes.”

“Our kids are hands-on,” Miller continued. “Students participate in internships all over the state. We also contract work to do testing for companies that don’t have the appropriate facilities and participate in research and development work.”

“We try to work closely with industry and have an advisory board of about 15 to help us,” Miller concluded. “Our grads are in management positions all over the state and across the country at plastics manufacturers and other businesses – Honda, Stanley Electric, GE, Procter & Gamble. We have a good alumni network.”

Pittsburg State University

Graduates are the best recruitment tool for Pittsburg (Kansas) State University’s engineering technology program, according to Bob Susnik, professor in plastics engineering technology. “They go out in industry and are successful, and the word passes on. Our advisory council members are alumni and friends. Three of our four faculty are alumni.”

Susnik said the program has grown from its beginning in 1971. “I graduated in ’79 with a master’s degree and worked in industry before coming back in ’88 to teach. We had 80 or 90 students in the program at that time but grew to 150 or so,” he explained. “Then there was a downturn, and by the mid-’90s, a lot of jobs were going overseas. But, we’ve come back and are up to 70 students, an increase of about 20 students in the last six to seven years. Right now, the job market is crazy. We can’t supply enough graduates.”

“Our strength is probably in processing,” Susnik continued. “We do injection, extrusion and blow molding, and we emphasize hands-on with a lot of one-on-one instruction. In our general plastics class, we cover hot air welding, adhesive bonding, vacuum bagging and surface preparation. We have a blow molder and three extruders.””

At Pittsburg State, Susnik emphasized the success of collaboration within departments. “Our graphic arts department used to make adhesive stickers we could put on Frisbees that we made in the class. Now we have flame treatment and silk screening equipment to treat and silk screen the graphic designs and pad print them on the discs,” he said. “We want to advance the decoration aspect of the industry, and our graphic arts department now is looking at a packaging major or minor emphasis that will deal with printing and decorating on plastics.””

Western Washington University

Prospective students west of the Rockies might look to Western Washington University in Bellingham, where the plastics and composites engineering program includes about 40 students, with stable enrollment for the past few years.

“We provide industry-ready graduates from the only accredited plastics engineering program west of Kansas,” said Nicole Hoekstra, professor of plastics and composites engineering. “Our well-equipped labs ensure graduates are proficient with production-scale processing equipment, quality assurance strategies and characterization techniques.”

“Because we do not have graduate students,” Hoekstra continued, “all undergraduate students participate in research projects with faculty members. The majority of these research projects have industry partners from Washington, Oregon and California. There are only four accredited programs in the US that offer instruction in thermoplastic processing. WWU PCE is the only one in the West.””

Hoekstra emphasized that the program is hands-on, team-based and lab-intensive. All junior- and senior-year courses have multiple smaller lab projects or a single 10-week project to reinforce concepts discussed in lecture.

“WWU PCE is a unique combination of manufacturing engineering and polymer chemistry,” Hoekstra said. “Students learn how processing, material structure and properties influence each other. They are introduced to secondary operations early in the curriculum, first to assembly processes, decorating processes and surface treatments as juniors. Throughout the rest of the curriculum, assembly processes, decorating process, and surface treatments are discussed, along with relevant manufacturing processes or material properties. For example, students learn painting for the first time when they apply gel coat to a foam composite mold. They have access to secondary operations, such as powder coating, two paint booths, ultrasonic welding, hot stamping, laser etching and plasma treatment. Additionally, students learn how secondary operations affect properties by utilizing instruments such as spectrophotometer and contact angle goniometer. They look at adhesion strength and surface roughness (profilometer, digital and electron microscopes). Many research projects with industry partners include secondary operations.””

WWU graduates, like those in other programs, have multiple job opportunities, Hoekstra said. “Currently, there is more demand for our students than we have available in our program.”

University of Wisconsin-Stout

Employment opportunities in the plastics engineering field have led to growing interest in programs across the US, but universities often face funding and faculty challenges. Photo courtesy of Ferris State University.

The plastics engineering program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout is a fundamental engineering program with courses in statics, dynamics, fluid mechanics, circuits and devices, according to Adam Kramschuster, the program director and associate professor.

“The program is focused on materials science, processing and engineering fundamentals. UW-Stout’s plastics engineering program has excellent materials characterization and processing equipment,” Kramschuster continued, “and multiple student and industry projects are performed to evaluate processing effects on material performance, as well as to investigate new process control/monitoring systems for injection molding.””

About 80 of the 9,300-plus students on UW-Stout’s Menomonie, Wisconsin, campus are enrolled in the program.

“Our program is relatively stable,” Kramschuster said. “Most 17-year old high school students don’t understand the opportunities available in the plastics industry, and therefore it can be difficult to pique their interest. However, once students visit and understand the opportunities in the field and see the equipment, they are often highly interested.””

A hands-on approach is taken with prospective students, Kramschuster said. “They have the opportunity to meet with a program faculty to discuss the curriculum, as well as typical projects students work on. This can be done on individual tours or during the multiple ‘Campus Preview Days’ hosted each semester. In addition, UW-Stout runs camps and hands-on activities.””

Most graduates are recruited into medical device manufacturing, which prevails in the region, Kramschuster concluded. “The majority of our students work in the contract injection molding industry, especially medical molding, though we have had students obtain careers at consulting firms and large tech/medical OEMs as well, and multiple extrusion companies. At the same time, a wide variety of companies that deal in plastic part design, plastic materials or plastic processing have expressed interest in hiring our students or have already done so.””

University of Massachusetts Lowell

The program at University of Massachusetts Lowell was founded in 1954 and offers a BS or five-year BS/MSE in plastics engineering, a more traditional MS program, a PhD in engineering with plastics option and a certificate in plastics engineering technology.

“UMass Lowell is fortunate to have a well-established plastics engineering program with a large alumni network and industry base,” explained Program Director David Kazmer, chair of the Department of Plastics Engineering. “We currently have students from across the US but also Italy, Germany, India, China, Singapore and other nations.””

The program annually awards approximately 50 to 60 students bachelor’s degrees, 30 master’s degrees and 10 doctorates. “Our program has been growing significantly, likely due to increased interest in manufacturing as well as excellent career placement,” said Kazmer. “Our program has an excellent co-op pipeline, with most students getting six to 12 months of experience before they graduate.””

Current initiatives include nano-manufacturing, medical devices, flexible electronics, high-performance composites and recycling. UMass Lowell’s program is the oldest and largest ABET-accredited plastics engineering program.

“From a curricular perspective, our diverse faculty provide coverage of all four areas: polymer chemistry, product design, polymer processing and characterization,” Kazmer said. “Thus, we close the feedback loop from conception to realization. In addition, we have eight lab courses in the undergraduate program that address pad printing, assembly, welding and other secondary processes. We also have full master’s-level elective courses related to coatings, adhesives and coloration.””