Erie, Pa. — Could medical plastics processing be a shot in the arm for Pennsylvania’s ailing manufacturing sector? The Commonwealth thinks so, and has awarded funding for a new research initiative at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, to make the diagnosis.
A $150,000 Keystone Innovation Zone Starter Kit grant will be used to help establish a Medical Plastics Research and Technology Center within the college’s School of Engineering. The center will assist plastics processors interested in producing medical devices using multi-component molding and silicon rubber molding techniques—two potential growth areas in an industry that is otherwise contracting.
“Adoption of these two molding technologies offers an opportunity to achieve product differentiation versus low technology commodity imports,” John Beaumont, professor of engineering and chair of the Plastics Engineering Technology degree programs at Penn State Behrend, said. “There is a projected 10 to 20 percent annual growth for these specialty products, as opposed to an 8 percent decline for plastic commodity components.”
Starter Kit funding will establish the laboratory infrastructure needed for materials compounding, multi-component materials characterization testing, and multi-component processing capability. The lab will include a modular clean room to act as a training and prototype facility for companies interested in learning more about medical molding.
The new center will support undergraduate and continuing education, research, technology transfer, and entrepreneurial activity in the medical manufacturing field. Among its goals is creating a certificate-level program in medical plastics device design, materials, regulations, and manufacture, and adding medical plastics workshops and seminars to its Plastics Training Academy courses for plastics professionals.
Regional companies considering adding medical manufacturing to their existing capabilities will have opportunities to partner with the center to gain exposure to the technology. “The lab will offer processors the ‘try before you buy’ experience, which we hope will tip the scale for small businesses,” Beaumont said. “In addition to capital investment in machines and molds, entry into medical manufacturing can be daunting because there’s a regulatory environment of strict quality control and product testing. You also have to extensively document your materials, process and product. Even with the potential opportunity for growth, small processors can’t be faulted for not wanting to take this leap sight unseen.”
Support services will help manufacturers navigate these unique quality, environmental, and regulatory issues. It is just these challenges that partly explain medical manufacturing’s potential for growth, Beaumont told the Erie Times-News in a story on the center: “It (plastic medical parts) is an industry that is less likely to get exported,” he said. “I think most people are concerned that we can’t even get toys from China without lead in them.”
The School of Engineering at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, offers three associate and seven bachelor’s degree programs, as well as one minor. Each program is accredited by either the Engineering Accreditation Commission (EAC) or the Technology Accreditation Commission (TAC) of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Students have access to 11 student chapters of honorary and professional organizations, such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). The School of Engineering and the Sam and Irene Black School of Business are co-located in the college’s $30 million, 160,000-square-foot Research and Economic Development Center, making Penn State Behrend one of the first institutions of higher education in the country to house its engineering and business schools together in the same facility. For more information, visit behrend.psu.edu.