Partnerships with Academia: Beaming with Success
Mercury Plastics and Kent State University designed a win/win alliance that could be the model for any business strategy.
by Tom Andel, chief editor
Strategy is defined in The American College Dictionary as "skillful management in getting the better of an adversary or attaining an end." Bill Rowley wanted to achieve both components of that definition. As president of Mercury Plastics Inc. (MPI), a Middlefield, Ohio-based manufacturer of tubing used in plumbing products, his options for gaining a competitive advantage were few. He made a commodity product. His strategy would have to involve finding some property that would make his product special and then produce that product affordably.
What can you do to polyethylene tubing? Plumbing applications require durability, so that meant making the material withstand higher pressures and temperatures. Rowley knew that one of three crosslink techniques would help him achieve those properties. Two involved chemical processes, the other crosslinked polyethylene material via irradiation under a high-energy electron beam. That was a cleaner process, but it would require a substantial investment of dollars and time. MPI would need a partner to share the expense of doing its own beaming in-house.
Strategy told Rowley he didn't want to share beam hours with a competitor. That would neutralize the competitive advantage he sought. The best approach, he reasoned, would be to find a partner in the academic world who could use this from an R&D point of view for teaching and training.
The right partner
Rowley visited several academic institutions and found nearby Kent State University to have the highest partnership potential. Coincidentally, KSU had also been searching for opportunities to partner with industry and get involved in research and development (R&D) activities, as well as in the use and applications of electron beam technology. KSU also had interest in developing academic programs in radiation technology. Bill Rowley and Dr. Carlos Vargas-Aburto, then assistant dean at the School of Technology, promoted and gained support within KSU for the idea of a joint partnership that would include the design and construction of an electron accelerator facility used for both production and educational (instructional and research) purposes.
"The concepts on which these partnerships are based are often simple and straightforward, but their implementation and management are difficult," he says. "In some cases, the objectives of the partnerships are unrealistic. However, there is no question in anybody's mind that successful partnerships between universities and industry provide a competitive advantage to the latter, and help the former more fully realize their mission of providing meaningful education to the members of the community."
Like most state universities, KSU can't leverage its assets in any kind of business deal. That's when the Kent Regional Business Alliance (KRBA), a 501C(3) organization, was invited to become involved and partner with MPI.
The partnership between MPI and KRBA, named NeoBeam Alliance Limited, entailed a 50/50 split of the $7.5 million price tag for the facility and the systems inside it.
MPI paid its share up front while the university funded the venture capital for KRBA. In return, KRBA agreed to sell future time on the new facility and return the proceeds to KSU.
Material handling's role
A major portion of the success of this project is owed to the selection of the two material handling systems that move the plastic material through the 20,000-square-foot facility for irradiation. MPI produces plumbing risers, cut to lengths of 12, 15, 20, 30 and 36 inches. These are the connections between the plumbing under your floorboards and the fixtures in your bathroom and kitchen. Mercury also processes bulk polyethylene tubing, mainly for the manufactured housing industry.
A cart conveyor system supplied by SI Systems moves the risers under the beam while the large spools of bulk tubing are paid out under the beam by a capstan system consisting of a series of shivs, pulleys and a take-up spool.
Key to the irradiation process is exposure timing consistency. The carts move at a steady pace under the beam, driven by a series of chain drives. Because exposure duration is so critical to product quality, the beam intensity was designed to control the speed of the cart system. As the beam comes up to full current, the cart system comes up to full speed. The beam irradiates the risers through the corrugated containers in which they are packaged. Yellow stickers placed on each case turn red after exposure, indicating that the contents received their "dose."
According to Craig Sleep, SI applications engineer on this project, the main challenge was to maximize the beam on-time and to avoid irradiating free space. Therefore, the carts must be as close to each other as possible as they go under the beam. However, to make sure workers are protected from exposure to the beam, the carts must navigate through a labyrinth, negotiating a series of turns to get to the beam. The carts can't be nose-to-tail going through these maneuvers, so as they enter the labyrinth, the centers on which they are mounted are far enough apart that the carts never contact each other. When the carts reach the beam area, the gap between them closes to essentially zero.
This is possible because the carts are driven by a series of four conveyors, A, B, C and D. Conveyor D, immediately preceding the beam, is the slowest. The cart behind the one traveling under the beam is still on the faster conveyor, B, and the speed differential essentially closes that gap between the two carts.
Another challenge was managing consistent beam exposure while running both rotary and linear drive systems.
"In any conveyor system that converts the rotary motion of a drive to linear, there's always some variation in velocity as the chain goes around the sprocket," explains Sleep. "We designed a special drive downstream of the beam that propels the carts through the beam. It has a special pitch chain so that the variation in velocity as it goes through the beam is minimal."
The system speed can be anywhere from five to 55 feet per minute, depending on the product. The products MPI processes on any given day can vary, and each requires a different dosage. This is where the KSU partnership really comes in handy.
"KSU helped us with dose mapping, measuring the amount of radiation the products are seeing to give it the proper crosslink percentage," says Scott Chapman, plant manager of the NeoBeam Alliance. "We send that product over to plant 2 where the amount of crosslinking induced by the radiation process is measured."
"We were trying to improve our processing but having difficulties with the temperature," adds Ray Grella, manager of plumbing products for MPI. "When you irradiate something, the temperature goes up. We are looking for different ways to bring the temperature down while not losing the intensity of the beam for crosslinking material."
With the dose mapping methodology worked out by KSU researchers, MPI found ways to lower processing temperatures while increasing throughput. As a result, MPI was also able to cut processing time in half.
"The more efficiently Scott can run this facility, the more competitive we are in the industry," says Grella, adding that SI Systems also contributes to this performance. That's not easy when the clients you work with run on two different time systems.
"Academia and business work on two different clocks," Grella admits. "What you say now, in commercial business terms, is yesterday. What you say now in academia is two weeks from now."
Grella was hired for this project three years ago and charged with getting it done on time and on budget. He answered to the NeoBeam update committee, which consists of equal partners from KSU and MPI. At the time, KSU was just starting its electronic beam technology program and looking for the most appropriate material handling technology.
"SI came up head and shoulders above the other conveyors out there," says Grella. "It had already provided systems like this to other beam facilities. We were relying on their expertise to give us guidance in this application. They guided us in selecting the casters, bearings and greases, and helped us plan the maintenance. This environment has a high level of ozone, so components must be stainless steel, concrete or some other non-corrosive material."
The facility's design and construction added to the material handling challenge. Electron beam processing resembles the operation of TV tubes, except amplified by several orders of magnitude. That means the integrity of the shielding has to be of the highest specification. There's a sprinkler system inside the vault area and a six-foot grid outside the wall, tied to a common ground for the highest shielding potential.
The process of getting product through the protective turns to enter and exit the beam area is a feat of engineering choreography.
"The system has to pick up a conveyor that was just loaded, take it into the beam vault as quickly as possible without causing disruption to the conveyor, then once it gets to the beam, have a consistency of pull across that beam," Grella explains. "Then as soon as it's beamed, you want to get it out of there quickly. So, there's a rate going in, going under the beam, and coming out. That's why there are three drives. SI helped us determine the optimal speeds."
Two of the drives are located outside the vault for easy service access, and one is inside the vault, in a non-strategic location that service people can access and get out quickly.
Keeping it going
The NeoBeam facility has been run on one shift by two people for a little more than a year. Staff consists of the beam operator who is responsible for controlling the beam, and an assistant responsible for loading and unloading material to and from the conveyor. KSU offers courses related to electron beam technology and its applications. More than 100 FTE students have already benefited from these courses, and from having used the facility for their classes. The facility is also being used by some students (both undergraduate and graduate) to carry out research activities where they blend the knowledge gained in their classes with the practical experience of processing material for a customer. NeoBeam periodically offers internships to students so they can help with production, giving them hands-on involvement in running the product for MPI.
Mercury Plastics' customers -- distributors, faucet suppliers, and OEMs like Maytag, Frigidaire, GE and Amana -- are benefiting from this partnership, too. They're getting components that last longer and cost less. According to Grella, this wouldn't have been possible for MPI to provide without its KSU alliance.
"If we were to pay for the beam ourselves, we would have to amortize that cost into the price," he concludes. "We got into this for half the investment. We're still learning as we go, but I believe this is the beginning of a trend. Educational institutions are looking for ways to generate income. Students are one, research is another."
Meanwhile, MPI is developing more products that will need to be processed through the NeoBeam facility. That may mean going to a second shift and expanding the building. Both MPI and KSU have promised to accommodate each other's needs as they nurture this evolving partnership. Dr. Carlos Vargas-Aburto says KSU has already received good international feedback.
"Of particular interest was the fact that KSU is developing both undergraduate and graduate programs on radiation technology," he says. "At present, industry has to resort to training its own personnel. There doesn't seem to be another source of qualified people with degrees in electron beam processing. That puts KSU in the enviable position of filling this need at both the national and international levels."
If the Mercury/KSU partnership continues to succeed, then a model will be in place for industrial and academic partnerships.