With the help of a 125-year-old Winona-based business, students in the Winona State University Composite Materials Engineering program are getting valuable hands-on experience as they prepare to enter the industry.
In 2014 WSU was awarded a new piece of equipment, a biaxial strain gage extensometer, through the Leveraged Equipment Program. The program is a partnership between the state and employers to fund equipment for academic instruction in areas of high employer need. In WSU’s case, Winona’s own RTP Company provided the match to acquire the extensometer.
Karl Hoppe, a composite material engineer with RTP and a 1998 WSU alumnus, said the equipment provides valuable data for his company as well as critical experience for the students.
“We had a need for the extensometer because it allows us to provide excellent data for our customers to design parts,” Hoppe said. “It also gives students exposure to these companies through interaction and report writing, and helps them understand how the tests and data are used when designing parts.”
The extensometer provides measurements, ratios and graphs of a composite material as it is stretched, flexed or compressed to the breaking point. A standard extensometer tells only how much the length has changed in one direction, but a biaxial extensometer evaluates changes in length and width.
Beckry Abdel-Magid, professor in the Department of Composite Materials Engineering, said the measurements provided are extremely useful for designing composite materials.
“When we make these composite materials, we want to know how strong they are, how stiff they are and how flexible they are,” Abdel-Magid said. “When you stretch a material one direction, it will shrink in another. By measuring how much deformation can happen in both directions, we can design materials to withstand various forces and stresses, and obtain, for example, zero change in dimensions in high-precision applications.”
Some of these high-precision applications include satellites and space telescopes. In space, extreme temperature changes can cause stretching and shrinking, and knowing the limits of composite materials can mean the difference between a clear image and a fuzzy image.
Beyond the critical data and tremendous gains in student experience, the extensometer also helps expand the services of COMTEC. COMTEC is an industry-university partnership that has undertaken hundreds of projects for the composite materials industry on local, regional and national levels. It employs students who work under the supervision of director Matthew Benson.
The extensometer also helps WSU’s composite materials students tremendously when it comes to building the skills they need to be successful in the composites industry.
“It’s not so much experience with the machine is so valuable, but experience with the data it provides that is critical,” Hoppe said. “They will have to work with the data they are testing, and in a company like RTP, understanding how the data is used is incredibly valuable, as well as knowing the good, the bad and the pitfalls of the data.”
The extensometer resides in the middle of a large warehouse-like room in WSU’s Stark Hall. Various materials of all types and sizes wait in queue around the room to be broken for the benefit of science and engineering.
“We’re really happy with it,” said Abdel-Magid. “Our students are seeing the benefits of quick and precise measurements of essential properties of composites.”
For more information, call the WSU Communications Office at 507-457-5024.