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Portland's Heavy Metal Workshop
Portland's Heavy Metal Workshop

In the early decades of the 20th century, a rapidly growing Portland built many of its iconic bridges. The first high rises crowned the downtown skyline. And the city grid was laid out in a network of streetcar lines linking the burgeoning urban center to nearby towns like Sellwood, Kenton, St. Johns, and Lents.

Expansion of the city’s infrastructure was enabled by the strength, durability, and functionality of composite materials like steel and by major advances in welding technology. The fact that so many of the bridges and buildings erected between 1900 and 1930 are still in use today is a testament to the city engineers who made sure that the construction materials were of the highest quality and fit their intended applications. Today, many companies contracted to build and manufacture components for public, commercial, and industrial use outsource the work city engineers once did to laboratories specializing in materials characterization, performance analysis, and welding.

Although it is not widely known, PSU staff members today run one of the most respected of these labs, nestled between one of Portland’s oldest bridges, the Hawthorne, and its newest, Tilikum Crossing. Located in a corner of a sizeable warehouse that houses OMSI’s exhibit construction department, PSU’s Materials Research Laboratory is home to a regionally unmatched collection of state-of-the-art equipment used to test the strength, performance, and durability of steels and other materials. The lab also hosts an ensemble of advanced, high power, robotic and manually operated machines capable of making prototype welds to production scale. Industrial examples include the mind-boggling, 35-foot, top-down continuous weld joining the massive steel structures supporting the weight of the new east span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, as well as micron-scale welds needed to produce microprocessors.

The lab is directed by Dr. Bill Wood, a nationally noted physical metallurgist and PSU engineering professor with decades of experience working with industry partners.

“What we do here is study the structure, properties, and performance capabilities of materials like steel,” Dr. Wood said. “We have a suite of tools with combined capabilities you won’t find at any other lab west of the Rockies. Between this space and facilities on campus, we have the capacity to synthesize materials, study and analyze the structure and properties of samples, and develop methods and prototypes of ferrous and nonferrous welding alloys, all of which our industry partners consider critical to their operations.”

“Critical” because companies contracted to build or provide components for bridges, airplanes, skyscrapers, and other applications need to prove their products are strong, durable, and flexible enough to perform in the structures they’re intended for, perhaps for as long as a century. It is vital to understand the precise kinds of loads, pressure, stress, temperature extremes and corrosive agents a given material or joint can withstand and the ways damage originates and propagates within the materials. This information, produced by Dr. Wood and his colleagues and students in their lab, is as essential to builders and manufacturers responsible for providing quality products at the front end of a project as it is for inspectors tasked with evaluating structures and performing maintenance at the back end.

During his tenure at PSU, Dr. Wood has contracted with industry giants including Boeing, Blount International, Advanced Surfaces and Processes, Precision Castparts, and the ESCO Corporation. He developed a welding process used in the fabrication of drive shafts of every Virginia Class submarine in the U.S. Navy’s fleet. Drivers on the recently completed eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge have had their weight supported by the strength of welds and a welding process developed by Dr. Wood and PSU Senior Research Engineer Bob Turpin, both of whom worked for seven years on the project with American Bridge, the company contracted by the State of California to build the replacement span after the 1989 earthquake.

“I don’t think a lot of people have any idea about the amount of work, research, and redundancy that goes into a project like that,” Dr. Wood said. “In fact, I think it’s pretty common for a lot of people to take materials and materials science for granted. We drive across bridges, live and work in high rise buildings, and ride in trains and airplanes every day, never giving a thought to the materials that make it all possible and how dependent we are on processes like welding.”

To some extent that is the reason why the Materials Research Laboratory is where it is. According to Dr. Wood, the lab was relocated to the warehouse on OMSI’s campus in 2014 as a part of a partnership between PSU and OMSI intended to elevate the “Industry” in OMSI’s name. Together PSU and OMSI hope to become a conduit between the metals industry and the over 1 million visitors the museum receives every year.

The lab has opened its doors to the public during OMSI’s Mini Maker Faire, providing welding demonstrations related to sponsored research including the Bay Bridge project. Students working on a capstone project in the lab are refurbishing a hundred year old materials testing machine—a one of a kind piece of city history, Dr. Wood noted—that was used by Portland’s engineers to test the strength and durability of manhole covers in the first decades of the 20th century. The students are bringing the 8,500 pound, 9-foot tall machine back to its original working condition. According to Dr. Wood, they also plan to equip it with modern electronics, sensors, and a computer operated motor. At the 2016 Maker Faire the lab will be able to demonstrate how components like steel beams and rivets were tested 100 years ago and then with the flip of a switch demonstrate on the same machine how it’s done today.

“Our partnership with OMSI really gives our lab and the university a way to interface with the public, which we might not otherwise have,” Dr. Wood said. “It gives us an opportunity to get kids and their parents engaged with materials science and interested in engineering. Sparking that interest could lead to students entering the STEM pipeline at a time when we need more people in the workforce with engineering skills and knowledge of the science behind the materials that make our modern life possible.”
A century ago, when Portland city engineers used their then-new machine to test the iron and steel with which the city’s infrastructure was built, the city was in a state of flux. Advances in engineering, technology, and science brought electricity, telecommunications, and mass transit to the city, allowed the skyline to rise, unified the two sides of the Willamette, and industrialized the region’s economy.

A century later the city is again changing. New sensor technologies and wireless communications are making it “smarter,” “greener,” and more “livable“ than ever. Innovators and entrepreneurs are thriving in the city’s vibrant startup ecosystem, which includes two of the state’s most successful business accelerators. For the first time in 50 years a new bridge spans the Willamette River, connecting anchor institutions at the heart of the city’s Innovation Quadrant: PSU, OHSU, OMSI, and PCC. What hasn’t changed is the fact that behind the new structures and technologies driving Portland into the 21st century are scientists and engineers like Bill Wood whose job it is to make sure our city is strong enough to remain standing for decades to come.