The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is taking its silicone elastomer course on the road again to Anaheim, Calif., letting newbies in the plastics industry earn credits toward certification and others collaborate with experts about their molding challenges.
The unique four-day program runs Feb. 12-15, right after the Medical Design and Manufacturing West trade show, so attendees of North America's largest annual medical technology event can stay for professional development or insight into a work problem.
With business leaders as instructors and a day of hands-on training in a nearby model facility, the $1,490 course attracts a wide audience of rubber chemists, process engineers, lab managers, technicians, quality control managers and sales personnel. There's often a waiting list to learn the latest about processing, dispensing systems, injection equipment, molding parameters, automation, flow analysis, venting, gating, cavitation, adhesion and surface modification.
"I don't know of another university that offers a course like this. People come from every state and all over the world — Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico," Marcia Gabriel, program director for the Center for Sustainability and Continuing Engineering Education at the UW-Milwaukee, said in a phone interview.
"Of all my courses, and we believe we have 100, this is the crown jewel of my program area for UWM because it appeals to people from all over the world and it's more like a conference," she added.
Gabriel isn't sure how long the course has been offered, but she has been director for seven years and has seen interest grow along with applications. The university prepares new training materials every year to reflect the latest technology and practices. Mel Toub, former application development manager of Momentive Performance Materials, chairs the group of instructors. He has four patents in the area of silicone heat-cured elastomers and is now a consultant.
Other instructors are John Timmerman of Stalim North American Corp.; Bob Pelletier of Elmet; Rick Finnie of M.R. Mold & Engineering Corp.; Stefan Scheiber of Arburg US; and Craig Lustek of Shin-Etsu Silicones of America. Gabriel describes the instructor team as energetic.
"They're dynamic and play off each other," she said. "It's not a boring course where you sit for lecture after lecture. It's very interactive, and there's a chance at the end for everyone to ask any question on their mind."
The course puts emphasis on liquid injection molding and LSR, which can be used to make everything from heat-resistant baking pans to soft and pliable prosthetic ears.
"The crowning jewel of the class is Day 3. I rent a tour bus and take everyone to M.R. Mold for hands-on experience. They can see what it takes to create these products of silicone elastomers," Gabriel said.
Based in Brea, Calif., and founded in 1985 by Finnie, M.R. Mold has built up a global customer base for LSR molds, gum stock silicone, plastic injection, compression and transfer molds. The business has a technology center with company-owned machines to analyze products with customers or send them samples before mold shipping.
For LSR molds, the business specializes in medical applications but also serves the surgical, dental, aviation and consumer products markets. M.R. Mold also offers overmolding and micromolding, including biocompatible devices the size of a grain of rice that can be inserted into tear ducts to block drainage.
"Their shop is a model for the industry," Gabriel said. "It's pretty generous of them to open their doors and let people take advantage of this training."
While other mold makers might be reluctant to host the course for a day to possible competitors, M.R. Mold officials aren't. They have a 33-year head start on much of the industry.
"In the silicone business, there are just a handful of competitors in the U.S. that we feel have the capabilities to be on our level and generally they don't send their people to our class. There's a mutual respect like I don't want you in my shops, I'm not sending anyone to yours," M.R. Mold Marketing Director said Geri Anderson said in a phone interview.
At the technology center, students watch instructors at the molding machines purposefully making mistakes for them to troubleshoot. They set up the process, turn on the pumping unit and work out the issue.
While M.R. Mold did hire someone that took the course, Anderson said hosting a class day isn't about scouting for new employees.
"The purpose is to educate the industry because there are no books on silicone and processing it, or they're so old they aren't pertinent anymore," she said. "This is our way of saying we know this is up and coming. It has been for many years. We know it will grow bigger. Let's see what we can do."
Versatile silicone is seeing advances in optical-grade and medicinal applications in addition to handling the extreme cold of aviation application to oven heat and everything in between.
"Rick would tell you that the only thing in your kitchen that can harm silicone is your steak knife because you can cut it. You can't destroy it any other way," Anderson said.
Some seats remain for the course, which is held at an Embassy Suites. To newbies, the organizers say every hour in professional development is an investment in your future. Credits can be applied to certificates in elastomers technology or plastics technology.
"New engineers probably haven't been exposed to this side of the business. Generally, they don't teach silicone in college," Anderson said.
Gabriel added: "Employers like to see that you're continually learning something. It really does help people get ahead or make a change. It's a fabulous thing to add to your resume."
To industry veterans stuck on a problem, Gabriel says bring it on.
"This happens all the time. People come with one thing in mind and they get the one-on-one attention from each instructor to know how to do it. It's a win-win. They better themselves through professional development, and they help their company solve a problem, so it's fantastic."
Attendees fill out evaluations after the course, and the feedback has been used to improve the educational experience.
"It gets rave reviews," Gabriel said. "Letters come in and say, 'This was the best course I've taken in my entire career.' It chokes me up."
For more information on the class, visit uwm.edu/sce-rubber.