Western grad students bring Christmas packaging home to NC

CULLOWHEE – Next time you buy Christmas ornaments packaged in a thin plastic tray, think about the rapid prototyping lab at Western Carolina University.

Mike Clare (seated), a Western graduate student from Lake Toxaway, is assisted by applications engineer Monty Graham.

Mike Clare (seated), a Western graduate student from Lake Toxaway, is assisted by applications engineer Monty Graham.

That’s where a small group of graduate students and engineering professors created an original mold for plastic packaging in response to a rush request from Watauga Opportunities Inc. of Boone. Their success will result in new jobs and revenue coming home to North Carolina.

WOI, a nonprofit organization involved in plastic manufacturing, employs and serves people with disabilities. President Michael Maybee says Rauch Industries, a maker of Christmas ornaments in Gastonia, wanted resources for its new patent-designed packaging, which was being made off shore and out-of-state.

On a tip from AdvantageWest, Maybee turned to Western for help in meeting that need. Engineering technology graduate students Mike Clare, Preston McCrary and William Extine worked with professors Phil Sanger, Aaron Ball, Chip Ferguson and applications engineer Monty Graham on the project. Together they created a computer model with very exact sample specifications of the ornament tray for their rapid prototyping machine at Western.

From their specifications, the machine built a single, very precise, three-dimensional, solid state model using miles and miles of tiny strands of a stable, high-heat resistant plastic called polyphenolsulfone (PPSF). Working through the Christmas holidays in 2004, they delivered their prototype to WOI in record time.

Maybee says his clients at Rauch were delighted with the speed and quality of Western’s work. Now that Western’s prototype has earned Rauch’s approval, WOI has received an initial order to produce millions of ornament trays for Christmas 2005. As WOI begins gearing up, Maybee says he’ll hire eight to 12 new employees and run two or three shifts a day to meet the demand. He expects to begin turning out the new product in May.

“Western’s engineering and technology department showed us that we can quickly respond to changes in our clients’ needs, and that makes WOI more competitive in the marketplace,” said Maybee. “The more business we can bring in, the more work we can give our employees, and the more services we can provide for people with disabilities here in Boone and five neighboring counties.”

Sanger, professor of engineering technology and director of Western’s Center for Integrated Technologies, says the work for WOI has been valuable for several reasons. “Our graduate students are working with very complicated geometry for this project, and they’re forced to use Pro-Engineer, a parametric computer modeling software tool, in ways you wouldn’t normally see in the classroom. They’re also seeing, first hand, the elements of successful high performance modeling in the real world – performance, time, schedule, costs. And, they’re doing something that has tremendous value for one company and for the community.”

In recognition of Western’s role in the project, Sanger, his colleagues and the students involved in this project received the 2005 Directors Award from MARC Inc. – the Marketing Association for Rehabilitation Centers in Western North Carolina. The award was presented Tuesday, March 28, at the annual MARC luncheon at Lake Junaluska .

“This project most definitely is a win! win! win!” says Noel Watts, executive director for MARC. “It’s a win for persons with disabilities, a win for Western Carolina University’s Center for Integrated Techologies and a win for Western North Carolina’s economy.”