Testing Our Metal

Illustration by Heather Miller
Illustration by Heather Miller

Chain saws, baseball bats, truck bodies, jet engine parts and bridges. All from America’s industrial heartland, right? Or made in China? Wrong. Companies that produce these and other metal products — from kitchen knives and laboratory incubators to steel fabrication stock — employ thousands of Oregonians. One of the tools in their toolbox is a research partnership with Oregon State and Portland State universities.

Thanks to a program known as the Oregon Metals Initiative (OMI), companies from ATI Wah Chang in Albany to Precision Castparts Corporation in Portland have access to faculty and student talent to solve problems and explore product improvements. Engineers and students have teamed up to answer practical questions that production line workers and managers face daily in their drive to stay ahead of the competition.

“We are an industrial engine for the state,” says John Parmigiani, OSU mechanical engineer and representative to the 10-member OMI Board of Directors. “Historically, there’s been an emphasis on metallurgy, developing alloys for specific applications. But the OMI allows for much broader investigations, and we’ve expanded the research to other areas.”

According to OMI annual reports, among those topics are optimal job tracking systems, safer chain saws, improved pruning blades for home gardeners and the use of high-strength composite materials to reduce vehicle weight. Other projects have focused on self-cleaning chemical processing tanks, more efficient metal grinding operations and new materials for electronic systems. Some projects have resulted in patents for companies, internships for students and full-time jobs for graduates.

In all cases, teams of business employees and university researchers match wits and skills in improving operations and developing products.

Participating companies have included

  • In Hillsboro, DeMarini Sports (athletic equipment, include aluminum bats)
  • In Portland, Blount Manufacturing (chainsaws); and Daimler Trucks North America; ESCO Corporation of Portland (precision components for aerospace, energy and turbocharger markets)
  • In Gresham, The Boeing Company (aircraft parts)
  • In McMinnville, Cascade Steel (specialty products made from recycled scrap metal)
  • In Oregon City, Benchmade (knives)
  • In Cornelius, Sheldon Manufacturing (laboratory ovens and incubators) and Advanced Surfaces and Processes (extended wear surfaces for durability)
  • In Corvallis, Hewlett Packard (electronics products including printers and computers)
  • In Albany, ATI Wah Chang (specialty metal products for chemical processing, energy and other markets)
  • In Reedsport, American Bridge Manufacturing (bridges and other civil infrastructure)

The State Legislature created the program in 1990. Projects are financed by state funds and matching dollars from businesses.

According to a 1998 survey of the state’s metals industry, Oregon hosted more than 1,700 metals manufacturing companies accounting for more than 55,000 jobs. These five recent projects are among those that are helping to shape the Oregon economy.

Company: Daimler Trucks North America, Portland

Project: Effective composites to replace metals
Goal: Reduce vehicle weight to create more fuel-efficient trucks and tractors

Company: Sheldon Manufacturing, Cornelius
Project: Humidity and Temperature Control of Thermal Chambers
Goal: Add features to an incubator and vacuum oven

Company: Hewlett Packard, Corvallis
Project: Materials for high-performance actuator applications
Goal: Develop thin-film piezoelectric material (exerts a force by changing shape in response to an electric current)

Company: Benchmade, Oregon City
Project: Blade steel alloy formation
Goal: Determine how different metal alloys perform in cutting experiments

Company: Blount Manufacturing, Portland
Project: Self-contained cutting-fluid system for concrete- and metal-cutting chain saws
Goal: Increase saw portability by designing an internal bar lubrication and cooling system