UD’s Advani named Society of Plastics Engineers’ Composites Educator of Year

Engineering students of the University of Delaware’s Suresh Advani who wonder what happens when polymers are mixed with fibers to make a composite can read his textbook, model the experiment for themselves using his processing software and then try it out for themselves in the laboratory.

His experiential bent is one reason why the Society of Plastics Engineers has named Advani, the George W. Laird Professor and Chair of Mechanical Engineering, its Composites Educator of the Year for 2015.

The award, which is sponsored by SABIC and presented by the Composites Division within the Society of Plastics Engineers, recognizes Advani’s significant achievements in training not only his students at UD but also students and professionals across the country and around the world.

“Dr. Advani has created new courses and textbooks, developed physics-based modeling and simulation tools for composites manufacturing, and motivated and placed many students in the composite industry and academia,” notes John W. (Jack) Gillespie Jr., director of the Center for Composite Materials (CCM), who nominated Advani for the award.

“The first thing I did when I came to graduate school was take [Advani’s] class on composite materials,” says Thomas Cender, a doctoral candidate at CCM. “He develops the philosophy for modeling very clearly, and it’s basically from his work in that class that I was able to develop my approach to research as it is now.”

“He gives the right amount of time and directions to help us find the solution on our own,” adds Hatice Sas, another of Advani’s doctoral students.

Advani researches manufacturing techniques for composite materials and formulates mathematical models to describe the material behavior by creating a virtual simulation of the process. Composites incorporate two or more distinct components, resulting in a new material with more desirable properties — for instance, hard but brittle glass fibers cushioned with bendable plastic make a strong composite, fiberglass.

It can be hard to predict the results when combining two or more dissimilar materials in new forms, making manufacturing tricky. “I joined the University in 1987, more than 27 years ago,” says Advani. “When I first started, most of the manufacturing industry treated composite manufacturing as a black art. It was a lot of trial and error; there was no real science base. My mission since then has been to use the science base and the physics of the materials and build predictive tools.”

From the beginning, Advani has developed his research, predictive models and teaching concurrently, each building on the other. His Principles of Composites Manufacturing course allows students to model composite behavior with equations using software called Liquid Injection Molding Simulation (LIMS), which he’s been developing and refining since 1992.

“Then they go in the lab and try to validate it and they see it actually works. That’s how you get them to [understand] that there’s science behind it,” Advani adds.

Advani’s LIMS software now allows manufacturing professionals to save time and money, and reduce waste, by testing and tweaking their ideas with computer simulations.

“Suresh makes a concerted effort to transform laboratory findings into engineering applications,” says Tsu-Wei Chou, Pierre S. du Pont Chair of Engineering. “He has been a tireless leader in advocating the importance of engineering science-based composites manufacturing.”

As well as teaching undergraduates, Advani supervises 11 graduate students and runs professional education workshops, and even summer programs for high school students, about composite manufacturing and simulation.

As a graduate adviser, “He really respects his students and our individual characters,” notes Sas.

Adds Cender, “He’s good at honing in on what someone’s good at and helping them develop that. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, it’s a personalized mentoring experience for everyone.”

Advani focuses on making sure his students acquire the skills to succeed in their fields. “He has expectations that we do some experimental and some modeling work,” says Cender. “It helps us become more well-rounded researchers.”

Despite his hectic schedule as department chair, classroom professor and associate director of CCM, Advani makes sure he’s available to his graduate students and takes time to meet with them regularly.

“He has high expectations, but gives lots of positive reinforcement,” Cender says. “He has definitely helped me accomplish a lot more than I ever thought I could.”

In 2002, Advani and a co-author wrote the first comprehensive textbook on modeling in composites manufacturing, the second edition of which came out in 2012. Committed to open learning, Advani also created a video version of the composites manufacturing course, which has been taken by hundreds of students and professionals in the U.S. and abroad.

“As I learn new and better things in my research, the next year I add that section in my teaching,” he says. “I’m trying to introduce more lab experiments and computer simulations as part of the curriculum — as [students] do things, they learn much more. So the future direction, I think, is more problem-based, hands-on learning.”

The SPE announced the award Tuesday at its annual conference, ANTEC, in Orlando, Florida.

Composites, Honors Top educator