Skip to main content
Undergraduates in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s capstone class examine a piece of laser-textured steel using a scanning electron microscope
April 12, 2024

For Wisconsin company, undergrads highlight laser focus on engineered coatings

Written By: Jason Daley

Almost every metal tool out there, from surgical scalpels to agricultural blades, is treated with some sort of engineered coating. These coatings have all sorts of benefits—including reducing wear and corrosion, and improving electrical conductivity and chemical resistance. While many of these coatings are extremely sophisticated, the way they are generally applied has not changed in decades: To improve adhesion, the manufacturer roughs up, or textures, the metal with an abrasive material like sand, then sprays on the coating.

The texturing process is messy and not particularly precise. That’s why a team of materials science and engineering seniors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is working with TST Engineered Coating Solutions in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, to research whether laser texturing might be a better solution. For team members—Laura Stern, Ella Mueller, Isabelle Baggenstoss, Mina Cho, Tanner Bares and Tucker Freeman—the project is the centerpiece of their capstone course.

“The cheap, easy way to do it currently is abrasive blasting, which creates a bunch of pitting, and that allows for the coating to get a stronger hold and get into the nooks and crannies,” says Freeman. “The problem is, it’s very bad for the work environment because it’s very dusty. A good way to avoid that is laser texturing because it’s clean and can be automated. We’re asking questions like is this a useful method and is it worth putting money into?”

During the first semester of the course, the team needed to refine its research focus. The students admit they initially struggled. “We had a really large scope to the project and we didn’t know where to go with it,” says Baggenstoss. “And then we got a tour of TST and we saw two sample preparation methods. After that, we got focused on what we wanted to do, and that made it a lot easier to plan for the semester.”

The team did a deep literature search to better understand the pros, cons and technical hurdles of laser texturing. The students then planned out a testing regime for the second semester of the project. During the spring 2024 semester they sent out samples of stainless steel and an alloy steel to undergo different types of laser and abrasive texturing. As the samples came back, they analyzed the materials using optical and scanning electron microscopes to take precise surface measurements. Their goal is to classify the properties of the various types of texturing and patterning.

“The technology is pretty new to TST and is really an exploratory technology,” says Stern “We’re trying different parameters of laser texturing and abrasive blasting to try and get a better idea of how the upgraded version would affect the samples.”

The students say that when the project is complete, they will provide TST with their findings. It will then be up to company to continue the research and decide whether it makes technical and financial sense to invest in laser texturing equipment, contract with another company that uses the technology, or continue business as usual.

Joe Zanter, the principal research and development engineer for medical devices at TST, who oversees the student project, says that the partnership is worth the effort, and has helped put some wheels in motion. “For the company, it’s a way to get attention on a project that has been waiting. Sponsoring a student project means that the project has a hard deadline and that drives it,” he says. “On the front end, we do pay attention to defining a project in such a way that there are multiple avenues for success besides the way we envisioned. Projects tend to laugh at plans!”

For the team, no matter what TST decides, working on the project has had a positive impact. “I’ve had a couple of internships that were manufacturing-focused, and I think it’s really cool to see the overlap. We’re thinking in a more manufacturing mindset where you’re worried about cost and output,” says Mueller. “You’re not just thinking so academically as we do in the lab.”

Stern, who plans to attend graduate school in fall 2024, says she appreciates the scope of the project as well. “It was really interesting to have the opportunity to plan out a project, lay out all the steps, figure out how you are going to achieve results, decide how many samples you’ll need, what machines you’ll use, and how much you’ll spend,” she says. “I think it’s good experience before I go off to grad school and have to manage a similar project on my own.”

Zanter says that, besides the technical insights the project provides, it has other benefits for TST as well. “Besides getting movement on a project, there is also the value of the interaction. As a company, as a corporation, direct community involvement is one of our principles, and this is a significant spoke,” he says. “Last and certainly not least, there is the interaction with the students. We are local, making visits back and forth simpler, sharing discussion around manufacturing, both specific to TST and in general to the larger manufacturing world. I have found in my career that time spent with students and new engineers is time well spent.”

Featured image caption: Undergraduates in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s capstone class examine a piece of laser-textured steel using a scanning electron microscope. From left to right, Ella Mueller, Tanner Bares, Isabelle Baggenstoss, Laura Stern, and Tucker Freeman. Not pictured, Mina Cho. Credit: Joel Hallberg.