Collaboration with Wisconsin plastics manufacturer yields industry and research advances

June 10, 2015

Photo: Teel Plastics headquarters

Through his work with Teel Plastics, which manufactures plastic profiles, pipes and tubing, Tim Osswald and his graduate students have solved sophisticated problems and developed a broader understanding of the plastics industry.

For University of Wisconsin–Madison plastics engineer Tim Osswald, the Wisconsin Idea is about taking the extra step: taking research out of the lab.

Through his work with Baraboo, Wisconsin company Teel Plastics, which manufactures a variety of plastic profiles, pipes and tubing, Osswald, the Kuo K. and Cindy F. Wang professor of mechanical engineering, and his graduate students have solved sophisticated problems and developed a broader understanding of the plastics industry.

Specifically, they’ve helped Teel develop new polymer blends and optimize pipe manufacturing practices.

Photo: Tim Osswald

Tim Osswald

Osswald, who is also on the company’s technical advisory board, says Teel is an ideal example of how companies in Wisconsin have used the university as a resource. Yet their relationship is far from a one-way street: Teel’s challenges allow Osswald and his students to confront relevant and contemporary issues in industry.

“We want to keep our feet on the ground and we do that by knowing exactly what the needs are of the industry,” he says. “So I think that keeps us in the forefront, because we know what’s needed out there.”

Among the projects that Osswald and his students have carried out with Teel is a device they constructed to assess the quality of foaming during a process that creates a foamed structure within a tube. Their device can be used to control the manufacturing process, check for unwanted variation, and ultimately increase the quality of the final product. Osswald’s team gains the opportunity to work with larger and more complex equipment, and Teel is able to improve its production.

Teel’s relationship with the UW–Madison Polymer Engineering Center (PEC), which Osswald directs, allows the company to network with the university. Teel’s director of new products and process development, Steve Schick, says the company’s links to UW–Madison give it the opportunity to test the feasibility of certain concepts.

“We use the university students and Osswald’s staff as sounding boards for what type of processes or methods could be deployed, in order to create a new product for our customers.”

Steve Schick

“We use the university students and Osswald’s staff as sounding boards for what type of processes or methods could be deployed, in order to create a new product for our customers,” Schick says.

Teel Plastics is a small company with international connections, working with companies in Germany to make casings for pencils. Despite its relatively small size, the company’s relationship with the university has allowed Teel engineers to co-author four papers with Osswald and his students — research endeavors that are usually done with large, multinational companies like GM or Ford. And the company’s link with UW–Madison puts it a step above its competitors.

“What puts Teel in front of other companies is its ability to recognize that if you put research into product development and problem solving, with a little more theoretical background, it is going to have a competitive edge over other companies,” Osswald says.

Not only do UW–Madison engineering students interact with Teel, but Teel staff turn to the university to learn more about the fundamentals of their field. A class that Osswald teaches in polymer processing, attended by a Teel engineer, can give him the chance to advance his knowledge, Osswald says. This is what the university offers the company in addition to research expertise.

In fact, a number of Teel engineers have taken university courses, says Schick.

“It’s just good practice that our employees here at Teel go through continuous improvement and learning opportunities,” he says. “That’s part of our culture.”

At the core of the UW–Madison and Teel relationship is an understanding that research is more than simply theory, and that industry is more than just process. Not only that, but the connection keeps things exciting for everyone.

“It makes it interesting,” Osswald says. “It makes us think and we solve problems that are very complex. It’s fun.”

—Alexis Brodt