Metal casting REU funded by NSF offers undergrads opportunities

A U.S. multi-billion dollar industry struggling to keep jobs in the country while casting a more high-tech image will get a boost from a new research program for engineering undergraduates beginning this summer.

Select students will participate in high-tech research opportunities in the seemingly low-tech world of metal casting, an industry suffering as a result of foreign competition and lack of research innovation. While the United States is the world's largest producer of cast products, it currently needs more technologically skilled and knowledgeable professionals.

"The metal casting industry is one of the few industries where the specific product being manufactured is not measured during the course of its manufacture, which is akin to measuring the stove, but not the food until cooked," explained Mohamed Abdelrahman, a TTU electrical and computer engineering professor and co-investigator of the program. "This industry is a field fertile with research opportunities.

"We will help students conduct research focusing on increasing the competitiveness of the U.S. metal casting industry, reducing energy consumption and environmental impact and changing the image of this field," he said.

TTU's nine-week program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REU, is one of only a handful of REU sites funded by NSF each year; this year's recipients include the University of Notre Dame, University of California at Berkley and Virginia Tech.

Ten students, five from TTU and five from other universities, will be paired with a mentor from the university or metal casting industry to work on projects complementing two major research projects already underway. Working one-on-one with a mentor, each student will choose a project investigating different sensing technologies, modeling of physical processes and automatic control of the casting process. The program offers each student a stipend of more than $5,700.

Casting is a very old process, and to a casual observer, the environment of a foundry looks very low-tech, But to stay competitive and keep jobs in the United States, the industry requires technical experience in fields including computer-aided manufacturing and robotics.

Sally Pardue, TTU mechanical engineering professor and co-investigator, explained how the REU offers students an attractive opportunity to engineering undergraduates on different levels.

"This generation of college students is strongly motivated by service," said Pardue. "This type of research links the need to help and the ability to help conserve energy, benefit the environment and save jobs.

"Plus, the project involves students and mentors from electrical, mechanical and chemical engineering, along with manufacturing and industrial technology," she said. "That multidisciplinary approach means that the challenges the industry is facing can be addressed from each of these angles."

TTU's current research collaborations include those with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and several industrial partners. Some students will have access to ORNL or industry facilities during the program.

More than 90 percent of all U.S. manufactured goods and capital equipment use metal castings as engineered components or rely on castings for their manufacture. The process is often described as the shortest distance between raw material and finished product, and that efficiency makes it a viable technology into the future.

"We realize the need of the metal casting industry for a well-trained and educated workforce that is capable of transforming not only the image, but also the reality, of the industry to a high-tech one," said Abdelrahman.

This is the second REU at TTU to receive NSF funding; last year, ECE faculty members Ben He and Nasir Ghani launched a similar program focusing on telecommunications research. Because of the highly competitive nature of the funding process, both Abdelrahman and Pardue agree that establishing funded REUs increases the visibility, reputation and prestige of the university.

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