President Eric Barron launched the Invent Penn State initiative in 2015 in order to connect the knowledge of Penn State researchers across the commonwealth with the marketplace and foster an entrepreneurial spirit among faculty, staff, and students. It can be a daunting prospect to cross the divide between academia and business, but a number of MRI faculty have taken the leap, and have experience on how to transition discovery to product. You can read about some of our recent startup companies on our website, mri.psu.edu, under the tab labeled “Innovations” at the top of the page.
Many other MRI researchers are engaged with industry, aiding our mission to maximize the impact of our research endeavor. Discovery in materials science can be through new structures, new properties, new composites, and new understanding of materials from properties to the synthetic pathways. The ability to take this knowledge and scale to large-scale processes and production enables the discovery to have a viable societal impact, provide new products and new devices, and to develop new competitive business. This can be done in partnership with established companies in the form of research partnerships or in the development of new start-ups. Whatever strategy is best, there is risk involved, and the “valley of death” always looms in the investment. Having a faculty with a vision to manage this, and who are also willing to challenge and reinvent the manufacturing sector through new materials and processes, helps in the transition of discovery to product through the various Technology Readiness Levels (TRL’s). As one example, additive manufacturing is one of those processes that is poised to revolutionize manufacturing, possibly even decentralizing the idea of the factory. Here the Penn State University is a clear leader in the field, particularly in manufacturing of metal parts for industry and defense. Be sure to read Prof. Tim Simpson’s remarks on “The Future of Manufacturing” in this issue.
Across our university, we have our commonwealth campuses also working to bridge the industrial and manufacturing gaps, at Penn State Erie, the Behrend College, we have a top 30 undergraduate engineering school with facilities and expertise that are ideal for doing polymer manufacturing research. Their “open laboratory” philosophy invites companies to share space side-by-side in university labs and engages students and faculty in real-world problem solving. Behrend faculty are bringing new tools and techniques to the plastics industry that could provide huge savings to automobile manufacturers and other plastic parts makers. Read about their work in “Behrend Campus Advances Plastics Manufacturing.”
You will find many more examples of the way Penn State and MRI researchers are contributing to the revitalization of manufacturing in this issue, but I want to direct your attention to the Humanitarian Materials Engineering section of the magazine. With MRI support, Prof. Esther Obonyo is initiating a project involving retrofitting historical buildings in New Kensington, with Kevin Sinder and the Commonwealth campus there. We will keep you informed of her progress in future issues. Another model for driving manufacturing is the program with the Applied Research Laboratory, with the site at Freeport, where there is an effort to drive production of textured piezoelectric ceramics for naval sonar applications and other sensor actuator applications.
Director of the Materials Research Institute and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering