CORVALLIS, Ore. — Oregon State University researchers are hoping to restore some lost U.S. manufacturing jobs by developing improved injection molding techniques using a $590,000 grant from Wal-Mart.
OSU was named Thursday to receive one of the first seven research grants from the Wal-Mart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund, given in collaboration with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The awards were announced as part of the U.S. Manufacturing Summit, a Wal-Mart-sponsored event in Denver.
Some of the work will be done at the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute in Corvallis, a research initiative managed by OSU and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The OSU Advantage Accelerator will help develop a commercialization plan for the new technology.
The three-year grant will support the work of Sundar V. Atre, an associate professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering, and Rajiv Malhotra, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. The two will work with Metal Technology Inc. of Albany and two East Coast industrial firms, Arburg and North American Hoganas, to develop and test more cost-efficient injection molding methods.
Injection molding is a widely used manufacturing process that involves pumping melted plastic resins into the void between paired metal molds to create a wide variety of products. The molds are typically carved out of solid blocks of tool steel, but the OSU researchers are working on a different process using less expensive copper, brass or bronze sandwiched between a thin steel skin.
According to Malhotra, the materials are cheaper and allow for faster cooling times, while the mold-making process results in less waste.
Altogether, the researchers estimate their process could bring down the cost of injection-molded parts by 30 to 50 percent.
"It's kind of a double advantage," Malhotra said. "You save on the cost of materials, and you get faster cooling times."
The $4 million worth of grants announced Thursday are part of a $10 million, five-year commitment by the Wal-Mart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund to support research aimed at making American companies more competitive. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, also unveiled plans earlier this year to boost its spending on U.S. goods by $50 billion over the next 10 years.
Both initiatives, however, come in the wake of widespread criticism of Wal-Mart for using its economic clout with suppliers to ratchet down prices, forcing U.S. manufacturing companies to outsource American jobs to China and other low-wage countries.
Malhotra said that he's not qualified to comment on whether the grants might be an effort by Wal-Mart to appease its critics, but he's not really worried about that.
"Most injection-molding machines are made in China, and most injection molds are also made in China, the reason being the cost of materials and the cost of labor," he said.
"If something that we do through this grant can make a little bit of a change and create a little bit of jobs (in this country), that's OK. And if Wal-Mart can improve its image, that's OK too."