The Future of Plastics: JKU Linz Trains the Plastics Engineers of Tomorrow
Interview with Professor Georg Steinbichler, Head of the Institute for Polymer Injection Molding and Process Automation (IPIM), Johannes Kepler University Linz
Plastics must be newly thought and designed – that is the credo at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz. From autumn 2023, courses on plastics technology will be offered here. Plastics don’t just play a supporting role there, they are the star of the show. Because they are a key factor for both the present and the future.
Professor Georg Steinbichler explains in an interview why there is a need for degrees specifically in plastics engineering, what distinguishes them and how industry is already involved in the training of young plastics engineers.
Professor Steinbichler, what are the current challenges your new degree programs aim to address?
Georg Steinbichler: The world is changing, prompting a mindset shift. Climate activists are no longer the only ones who are deeply concerned about the impacts of unrestrained energy and resource consumption. To address the challenges of using fewer resources and encouraging sustainable practices and strategies, we must apply our existing and future knowledge intelligently. This also applies to polymer technologies. Used correctly, plastics already make a significant contribution to today’s ecological and economic solutions. Plastics are also a key material for future technologies such as electric mobility and renewable energy technologies. However, it is troubling that aspects of sustainability and carbon footprints usually only play a secondary role when it comes to new product and technology evaluations and designs. We need transparent reusable systems and production and recovery chains that are optimized for recycling. The Johannes Kepler University (JKU) Linz has completely revised and revamped its current academic degree programs in polymer engineering studies to overcome these multifaceted challenges.
What is the content of the three new courses? How are they structured?
Steinbichler: A new bachelor’s degree program and two master’s degree programs are waiting in the wings and will teach prospective engineers to critically evaluate and develop future-oriented solutions for the sustainable and environmentally friendly use of plastics and respond to the energy and climate crises.
Unlike other university study programs that offer optional specializations in plastics technology as part of a mechanical engineering degree, for example, the JKU program is a continuous degree in polymer engineering technology starting with the first semester.
The Bachelor’s degree program in “Sustainable Plastics Technology & a Circular Economy” starts in the fall of 2023 and highlights the entire value chain of plastics ranging from their foundations in science, design and processing to recycling and a circular economy. The program also focuses on new scientific approaches (such as polymers to support medicine, nutrition, water, energy, and the climate) as well as life-cycle impact assessments and digitalization with modeling and machine learning as a superordinate concept for “artificial” intelligence generation. Topics include:
- Materials and Process Technology: (Hands-on lab tasks focusing on injection molding and extrusion)
- Design: Design and simulate plastic components
- Testing Materials: Learn how to characterize materials in terms of mechanical, thermal, and optical features.
- Recycling Technologies and Material Cycles: Sustainably recycle plastic waste
- Natural Sciences: Advanced mathematics and programming as well as a focus on the chemical-molecular structure of plastics and synthesis
- Mechanical Engineering & Mechatronics: Fundamentals in lightweight construction, electrical engineering, and mechanics
- Life-cycle impact analyses and social relations
- Bachelor’s Thesis: Specialize in an area you are most interested in, also in collaboration with leading partners in industry and business.
What is the difference between the two master’s programs?
Steinbichler: The two English-taught master’s degree programs will start in the fall of 2024. While the students in the Plastics Management & Sustainability master’s degree program learn to address social challenges using (plastics) engineering approaches, the focus of the Polymer Engineering & Science master’s degree program is on deepening technical and scientific aspects for industry and science.
What skills do the students develop and why are they important in the future?
Steinbichler: The new degree programs feature the latest didactic and educational methods. Students learn problem-solving skills combined with a high degree of independence to address concrete content. Besides expertise in polymer technologies, the curriculum includes honing “future skills”. Students will develop the expertise necessary to successfully act and interact for the good of the environment, humanity, society, business, and technology.
What industry feedback are you getting?
Steinbichler: The aforementioned academic degree programs and a doctorate degree in plastics technology are primarily supported by the four Plastics Engineering Institutes. The generous support and collaboration of 25 companies, mainly from Austria and Germany, made it possible to create a networked factory for education, training, and research (LIT Factory at the Linz Institute of Technology) in plastics technology in 2021. The research focuses on the development of new process technologies for the manufacturing of recyclable lightweight components based on models found in nature, the recycling and upcycling of plastics, and the use of digitization alongside the value chain for the benefit of humanity, the environment, and the economy. The idea is to pursue a visionary and holistic technology approach with a focus on responsible technology. Several corporate partners are also actively supporting the transformation of the plastics technology degree programs.
How will the academic degree programs affect the future of the plastics industry?
Steinbichler: The introduction of the new degree courses is designed to get young people excited and motivate them to develop sustainable solutions for society. It’s about defending the technology leadership position of Europe and our national economies, also as it pertains to the development and implementation of sustainable solutions to support a circular plastics economy. The new courses cover the educational requirements and job profiles of future professional fields in the 21st century. The acquired skills are relevant in a broad array of applications and are already in high demand by many of today’s employers.
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