Cornfield brainstorm leads to student's success in plastics

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Lying for hours in a cut cornfield waiting for unsuspecting waterfowl to become inviting prey gives a person plenty of time to think. Granted, the brown remnants of the fall’s harvest and gray morning sky aren’t typical ingredients for inspiration. But for Anthony P. Wagner, the setting was the birthplace of a dream.

A dream that requires him to trade his binoculars for safety glasses and camouflage for blue jeans.

The avid hunter is aiming for a rewarding future in the plastics industry. Thanks to his education at Pennsylvania College of Technology and proactive networking, Wagner is on target for career success.

“I honestly love plastics,” Wagner said. “I didn’t know what to expect when I enrolled. I knew I had an end goal and needed this education to reach that goal. It’s been quite the roller-coaster ride for me. It’s been awesome.”

The ride began in that depleted cornfield on the outskirts of Williamsport. Wagner would populate it with goose decoys to lure ducks and geese within range of his Stoeger M3500 shotgun.

“The decoys are really expensive,” he said. “I figured there has to be a way for these to be cheaper. I decided to go back to school, go through the plastics program, and start my own hunting decoy business.”

Growing up in Avis, Wagner knew working with his hands was a requirement for any career consideration. About every six weeks, he would tear his bike apart and painstakingly reassemble it. Parts scattered throughout the house became tripping hazards, much to the annoyance of his parents. But they supported his mechanical aptitude.

Wagner’s mother, Ellen, encouraged him to consider Penn College as a steppingstone to a hands-on career. Ellen graduated from the college in 2003 with an associate degree in computer aided drafting technology, a major known today as engineering CAD technology.

“She told me that Penn College had an awesome plastics program and that plastics would be where things are at in the future,” Wagner said.

His mother was right.

Penn College is among just a handful of institutions nationwide with plastics degrees accredited by the Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission of ABET, and graduates of the program have a nearly 100 percent job-placement rate.

Those facts didn’t interest Wagner, the high school student. He chose the workforce over college, first as an inspection mechanic at an area garage and later as a maintenance worker for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Nearly eight years after receiving his high school diploma, Wagner linked his cornfield brainstorm to a lingering interest in running his own business. That prompted him to finally heed his mother’s advice and enroll at Penn College for plastics.

Today, Wagner is on the cusp of earning a bachelor’s degree in plastics and polymer engineering technology. He’s interned with a prominent company, participated at industry conferences, and is working on a project for a national competition.

“Anthony has impressive hands-on skills and a tremendous work ethic,” said Christopher J. Gagliano, program manager of the Thermoforming Center of Excellence at Penn College’s Plastics Innovation Resource Center, where Wagner serves as a research assistant. “It’s been a pleasure to have him working for the PIRC the past two years.”

“He goes beyond simply what is asked of him in the classroom,” added Kirk M. Cantor, professor of plastics and polymer technology. “Anthony seeks out additional challenges and projects that will stretch his understanding of plastics. His hands-on skills are some of the best that I have ever seen.”

The hands-on nature of the program acclimated Wagner to the major’s academic rigor.

“From day one up through graduation, you are touching machines, pushing buttons, changing knobs,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing for me because I’m a hands-on guy. On top of that, you have the lecture side, so you get to put your mind to use and take that knowledge right to the end of your fingertips.”

Wagner is currently focusing on thermoforming (also referred to as vacuum forming), the practice of heating a thermoplastic sheet until pliable and — by use of vacuum — forming the sheet into a three-dimensional shape. Along with fellow student Joshua M. Worthing, of New Brighton, Wagner is employing that process for a remote-controlled car contest sponsored by the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Division.

Students throughout the country are designing, manufacturing and decorating a plastic body to be mounted on the chassis of an electric remote-controlled car. Entrants will be judged on the design and appearance of their car at the SPE Thermoforming Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, in late September.

“The biggest challenge has been taking an image inside my mind and putting it on the computer screen and designing it. Our design kind of looks like a Volkswagen Beetle,” Wagner said with a chuckle.

Following the design phase, the mold will be 3-D printed in the college’s rapid prototyping lab and then samples thermoformed to produce the footlong car body that will be painted or vinyl-wrapped.

“We have three design classes, and it all comes together when you do a project like this,” Wagner said. “The whole experience has been amazing.”

It also mirrors the process Wagner hopes to follow someday with a hunting decoy business. He imagines himself producing plastics parts in the shape of ducks, hand-painting them to reflect various species, and selling them at a lower cost point than competitors.

That venture is most likely a few years away. Establishing himself in the plastics industry comes first.

Wagner’s education and presence at plastics conferences led to an internship last summer with Toter Inc. in Statesville, North Carolina. Toter is a leading manufacturer of recyclable carts for curbside collection of waste, recycling and organics. Wagner said the result of that internship will be a full-time position at Toter that he can begin next spring.

Before that, he will present a research abstract at ANTEC (SPE’s annual technical conference), complete his remaining core courses in the plastics curriculum, and of course, manufacture his car body for the national contest.

“I want to win ‘best in show,’” he admitted.

“My advice for anybody, especially adults going back to school, is if you’re going to jump in, do it with both feet,” Wagner said. “Don’t second-guess yourself. If you’re going to do it, do it!”

Wagner is proof of the possibilities when following such wisdom. That’s why waterfowl everywhere should be wary of their future.

For more about plastics degrees and other programs offered by the School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520 or visit www.pct.edu/icet.

Penn College is a national leader in applied technology education and workforce development. Visit www.pct.edu, email admissions@pct.edu or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

Last Updated April 09, 2018