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UNI Metal Casting Center celebrates 25th year [Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa :: ]
[January 30, 2014]

UNI Metal Casting Center celebrates 25th year [Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa :: ]

(Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 30--CEDAR FALLS -- Behind the sheer spectacle of flying sparks and molten steel at the University of Northern Iowa Metal Casting Center lies one of the best equipped and most influential metalwork facilities in the world.

For the last 25 years, the UNI Metal Casting Center has been providing state-of-the-industry research to state, federal and private organizations, all while affording students a unique opportunity to gain experience in an applied scientific field.

"We have the highest-ranking metal casting academic program in North America," said Jerry Thiel, director of the metal casting center. "There is no other program like this in the U.S." A not-for-profit organization, the center boasts $10 million worth of equipment, mostly donated, sprawled across 7,500 square feet of floor space in its facility abutting the UNI Industrial Technology building. About 5,000 square feet is devoted to the center's hot metals laboratory. The rest is occupied by three other laboratories that house state-of-the art sand- and materials-testing equipment.

Most notable perhaps is one of the center's more recent acquisitions, the largest 3D printer in North America. The 12,000-pound machine, currently housed at Cedar Valley TechWorks in downtown Waterloo, will help create three dimensional molds for metal casting. The printer is capable of creating casting models with a volume of 13 cubic feet.

"For the students getting to work with cutting edge technology, there's just no equal," Thiel said.

According to Thiel, 90 percent of all manufactured durable goods and 100 percent of all manufacturing machinery contains metal castings of the type produced at the center. Casting refers to the process of forming metal components by pouring molten materials into molds, which are typically made of bonded sand composites.

"Metal casting continues to be the most versatile metal forming method that we know of today," Thiel said.

Established in 1984, the metal casting center came into its own when its building was finished in 1989 with funding from the Iowa Lottery and matching university funds. With an average annual budget of about $350,000, none of the center's money comes from the university's general fund. The center is instead self-funded via service fees from private and government industries along with a small allowance from the Department of Economic Development.

This kind of arrangement is a double-edged sword in Thiel's view. While being untethered to the university's general fund makes for an unpredictable budgetary situation, the result can also be liberating.

"I think it's made us very aggressive in our work attitudes and methods," Thiel said. "We're not waiting around for funding to arrive. We're going out there and seeking funding." Though it collects fees for service, UNI's center is not in the business of manufacturing actual products. The emphasis is on research and development, Thiel said, on testing technologies, materials, and processes for the betterment of the metal casting industry as a whole.

To that end, the center has produced several technological innovations over the years, according to Thiel. Some of the assembled gear used for testing chemical and thermal properties is unique to UNI, created from the ground up over the years by workers and students at the center.

One standout invention produced at the center for the federal government is a new kind of bio-based agent for binding metallic materials. Most such binders are developed from petro-chemicals.

"We developed an agricultural alternative," Thiel said. "And that was using carbon nano-particles." That's just one example of the kind of research conducted by the workers at the center.

Including Thiel, the center has three full-time employees, with up to 15 part-time undergraduate employees who work on a variety of industrial and federal research projects. Any student can work at the center's foundry, making anywhere between $8 and $10 an hour. But only a manufacturing major can enroll in the center's academic program.

"We are the most industry-oriented program, not only on campus, but in the state of Iowa," said Dr. Mohammed Fahmy, head of the UNI technology department.

An emphasis in metal casting studies pays off, too. According to Thiel, students who graduate from the manufacturing program with an emphasis in metal casting are virtually guaranteed to get a job straight out of school.

"When they are employed they hit the ground running," Fahmy said. "They don't need more training because they have all the training, or most of it, they'd need to get the job." The last four graduates of the program, Thiel said, have jobs with annual salaries of between $65,000 and $70,000.

"We educate the students to create wealth by manufacturing it," Thiel said.

The center continues to grow in capability, but Thiel is always looking for more students to enroll in the academic program. Whatever the future holds, Thiel expects only good things to come for the center's students and the industries that benefit from their hard work.

"What's ahead for us is doing more of what we're doing right now," Thiel said. "And that's assisting the industry in advancing." ___ (c)2014 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa) Visit Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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