By Eric Peterson | May 15, 2023
After a long career working composites with Northrop Grumman, Dr. Greg Anderson transitioned into a second career as director of Utah State University's new Center for the Design and Manufacturing of Advanced Materials. His experience at Northrop Grumman's facility in Promontory, Utah, and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama put him on a roundabout path into academia.
CompanyWeek: Tell me about the origins of the Center for the Design and Manufacturing of Advanced Materials. How did it come to be?
Greg Anderson: UAMMI is a standalone group that works with businesses. They're funded by the state. They try to meet the needs of companies as a clearinghouse. It turns out, on the Wasatch Front, we have the fourth-largest concentration of businesses manufacturing composite materials in the United States.
Some of the companies they were working with thought it would be really nice if there was a way for working professionals to upgrade their skills in composites. So they came to Utah State and asked if they would set up a master's degree program that would help some of the working professionals as well as our students getting advanced degrees.
At about the time that this happened, I retired from Northrop Grumman after 30 years of working with adhesives and composite materials. I happened to go to school with the associate dean of the College of Engineering, Tom Fronk, and he told me about this idea and I was sold. Three days after I retired, I started again on a second career as the director for the center and an associate practicing professor in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department.
So I started last May, and by the end of the summer, we had five students in the program. Two of them just graduated and the other three are graduating in December. There are five additional students who will start in the fall.
There are two working professionals who are looking into the program. I've committed that, if there's at least two working professionals who want classes at night, I'll go over the hill and teach a class every semester either at the Brigham City campus of Utah State or at Weber State University in Ogden.
CW: Why were you instantly sold on the idea of being director of the center?
GA: Well, I like to teach. Late in my career, I was the chief engineer for the SLS booster motor. When I quit that job, I moved part-time into the group that had the most young engineers, because I really enjoyed working with the young engineers. When that went away with COVID, that's when I decided to retire. So this really fit in well with my preferences at this point in my career, passing on some of the things I've learned over 30 years.
My son got his bachelor's degree from the mechanical and aerospace engineering department here at Utah State, and he went onto graduate school at another university. His comment to me was he didn't really learn anything new in the other advanced degree that he got. He was really happy with the education he got here at Utah State, and that impressed me to want to work here.
But also, starting something like this center from the ground up, it's challenging and very, very rewarding. Having two students graduate with master's degrees in less than a year from when I was hired on, it's just awesome.
CW: Tell me more about what you are teaching. What is the curriculum?
GA: When I came here, none of the classes that I taught had ever been taught here before. In fact, in some cases, I'm not sure that there's been another university in all of the United States that teaches such a course. The first one was the materials sciences composites in the fall, and in the spring, I taught testing of composites and manufacturing of composites. Then I'm adding one more class this fall on adhesion science.
So the degree right now is a course-only degree. There are 11 classes that need to be taken, and six of them are required. Two of them are mechanics of composites I and II, and those have been taught at Utah State for 30 years now. So we have a strong background on the mechanics side, and I kind of bring some of the materials science to the group.
CW: What were the big milestones for the center in its inaugural year?
GA: We've had some really good help from different companies locally. Northrop Grumman provided a guest lecturer. In the design of experiments, Hexcel from Salt Lake supplied us with materials and some training on how to test a single carbon fiber that is seven microns in diameter -- it's about half the size of a human hair. We did it as a class as one of our labs. They also provided a guest lecturer. HyPerComp in Brigham City provided a guest lecturer and they also supplied us with a lot of material. So we've had really good interactions and help from the businesses in the area.
CW: Broadly, what do you see as the future of composites in manufacturing?
GA: I think you'll see more and more automation as time goes by. Part of it is that it's hard to have longevity in your operations staff, and for a lot of years, we relied on their expertise to be successful in our manufacturing. And as their longevity decreases -- meaning jumping jobs is more common now than when I started -- the automation is what will drive it, because we won't be able to rely on the expertise of the operations staff.
One of the things we are getting -- we ordered it in December and it will be coming to us this summer -- is a lab-scale filament winding machine, which is an automated system for winding. We're trying to get to the point where we can offer a one-week course to train people on that and other manufacturing techniques. That is in our five-year plan, but it will probably be year three when we will be able to do that.
CW: Why does Utah have such a strong composites sector?
GA: Because one of the early adopters of high-performing composite materials [Hercules, later ATK] was in solid rocket motor manufacturing, making the case materials. That sector, where weight is so important, they were an early adopter. In fact, a lot of the early research went on in the state of Utah. Bill Bascom came to the University of Utah. He was one of the pioneers in understanding fiber-matrix interaction in composite materials. There's been a lot of research, a lot of development, and one of the spinoffs from making those rocket motor cases, Hercules at the time, they actually made their own carbon fiber. They sold off that business -- that's now Hexcel. They have been instrumental in developing some of the state-of-the-art techniques that are used today: automated fiber placement, automated tape layup. Those were basically invented by the Hercules group.
CW: What's year two look like?
GA: We're starting with five students. I imagine by the time we get around to starting in the fall, it'll be eight. That was our goal going in: four the first year, eight the second year, 12 the third year. So far we're on track to meet all of our goals.
CW: Is there anything you're looking for in terms of partnerships with private companies or other organizations?
GA: Those that would like us to teach and upgrade the skills of their employees, that's really why we're here. It's to support them with new graduates and upgrade the skills of their current employees. The shout-out would be, if there's some interest, I'll drive down to Clearfield two or three times a week and we'll have that evening class. That would be the highlight for this year, if we could get that started.
Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek's UT Mfg. Report. Reach him at email@example.com.