Driving the future: Partnership answers ‘The Why’

Tobias Potyra was coming to North America. But the Fraunhofer Institute of Chemical Technology manager of operations just didn’t know where.

However, what brought Potyra and his company to Western, and its Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP), will not only be celebrated next week, but hopefully resonate at the university for years to come.

Nearly two years ago, Potyra was a member of a team looking for a partner in lightweight composites research for the German company, Europe’s largest application-oriented research organization. They had hopes of building a Fraunhofer Project Centre (FPC) for Composites Research in North America, which Potyra would lead.

To that end, the company had flirtations with a handful of U.S. universities, as well as one Canadian, but nothing ever clicked. They had reached, if not a dead end, at least a fork in the road.

“We were like, ‘OK, what should we do now? In the U.S., it doesn’t work. In Canada, going somewhere far away from the automotive hub, which is Detroit, was not the way we wanted to go,’” Potyra said. “We were convinced we wanted to be in local proximity to our clients.

“So, we were a little bit disappointed, discouraged. Then this new opportunity came up and we thought ‘This is a great opportunity.’”

That “opportunity” surfaced as Potyra’s team attended a composites conference in Troy, Mich. There, they first heard the name Andy Hrymak, Western’s Faculty of Engineering dean, only a few months on the job when Fraunhofer called.

Following the conference, the Fraunhofer team made its way to London for its first conversation about the proposed partnership. Potyra had to fly home, and missed the meeting. But the delegation, now headed by Frank Henning, FPC deputy institute director, made the trip and was relieved, even excited, about what they found at Western.

“The opportunity was exciting,” Hrymak said of that first encounter. “The question was, what working model made sense and would fit with all the stakeholder needs. We had a workshop within six months and, at that point, it was clear in my mind.”

Next week, Western and Fraunhofer will celebrate the culmination of that opportunity with the launch of the Fraunhofer Project Centre for Composites Research at Western. An event will bring together representatives of those involved in making Potyra’s opportunity a reality under the roof of the centre’s AMP location.

It’s a day long in the making and one full of hope for the country, community, company and university.

Together, Western and Fraunhofer will focus on developing lightweight composites at this testing-ground facility through full industrial-scale trials.

Germany, and particularly Fraunhofer, has become a world leader in lightweight construction. Fibre composites are finding increasing application, particularly in the automotive sector. Some of the applications include automotive underbody shields, parts of the body structures of a car, closures such as tailgates and doors and seat structures. There are also applications for the solar and wind turbine industries.

Hrymak said the centre will provide platform technology for real-time, industrial part development using – as well as developing – composite materials and manufacturing processes. The focus of the centre is advanced manufacturing, which means highly precise in-line quality controlled manufacturing of high-performance composites in a suitable scale.

“With Western, we answer ‘The Why’ – why does this solution work – to create sustainable know-how,” Potyra said, stressing this is research with real-world application.

“Making, say, one space shuttle is great, hand-making it fibre by fibre,” he said. “But making 100,000 parts a year that all look the same with the same properties, that’s the challenge.”

This joint venture, the first comprehensive initiative between a Canadian university and an institute of Fraunhofer, will hit the ground running. Two contracts are already signed; two are near signing, Potyra said. And the facility is already looking to add staff.

“It will be insane in terms of workload coming up,” said Potyra, who celebrates one year in Canada this month. “It’s very exciting.”

“We wish that there were more hours in the day,” Hrymak echoed.

Western was a natural fit for the company, given the university’s pre-existing expertise in surface science as well as desire to partner on composite materials. It’s an openness for innovation that enticed the company.

“We have found a very good, very reliable partner in Western,” Potyra said.

The partnership opens doors not only for industry, but for faculty research and student opportunities in the classroom.

“We see this project centre as a bridge,” Hrymak said.

As the centre develops prototype parts and processes for industry, questions will arise. Enter Western. “Those kinds of fundamental questions will go back to the academics. Faculty and graduate students will then answer why certain things happen,” Hrymak continued.

Graduate students will get hands-on training with the equipment – much of it unique to Canada, even North America – allowing them to put their research into industry context. Undergraduate opportunities are being developed for co-ops and internships.

Potyra said the German government is supporting a six-month internship opportunity for German undergraduate students; he hopes to develop a similar program, working with the various funding agencies, for Canadian undergraduate students to study in Germany.

“It is very unique, not only setting up the centre here, but it is this very holistic approach,” he said. “It’s going to be a real hub for composite technology. It’s not only that we have a nice big machine. It’s supported from academia, student life, teaching and industry. All angles you might look onto this facility with, they are all supported.

“Everyone is excited we can move something, create something that is, in the end, unique for Western.”

Among the highlights of the centre, at least among the visual highlights when one walks into the $10 million facility, is the state-of-the-art hydraulic press with a maximum clamping force of 2,500 tons.

Among the highlights of the centre, at least among the visual highlights when one walks into the $10 million facility, is the state-of-the-art hydraulic press with a maximum clamping force of 2,500 tons.