Published on Wednesday August 8, 2007
Some people discover their love for materials science and engineering late in life. Others find their calling very early on. Just ask Thomas Henriksen, an MSE alumnus (B.S. 2005) and president and CEO of Ceramco, Inc. located in New Hampshire.
Ceramic components Q&A with Thomas
MSE: What do ceramic components offer that metals or polymers do not?
TH: In general, ceramics, like alumina (i.e. aluminum oxide), are used for high temperature applications because they can withstand high heat that would otherwise melt a metal or polymer. Alumina is also used when electrical and thermal conductivity is of concern in a design. It is also non-magnetic, biocompatible, non-corrosive, and resistant to weathering.
Alumina is almost as hard as diamond too, and since it is so durable, it offers very high cost to performance ratio.
Ceramic components can be used in instrumentation, welding and plasma cutting, high-temperature furnaces, electronics, and the aerospace industry.
MSE: Why are ceramic components better used in these instances than traditional metals or polymers?
TH: It all depends on the design criteria. My father referred to alumina as "the Cadillac of ceramics" because it is such a solid, proven engineering material. It lasts forever, it can go just about anywhere, and it's much cheaper than other ceramic materials, so it gets used for all kinds of things.
MSE: What do you think is the greatest advantage of using ceramic components?
TH: The truth is that ceramics are used in just about everything that makes this world go around, only you don't typically see them as they are hidden in the assembly or device, but they are critical to its functionality.
MSE: What are some weaknesses in ceramic components?
TH: Ceramic components made of alumina are susceptible to chipping and cracking and therefore have a reputation for undergoing brittle failure, so don't hit them with a hammer or use them in a rough service environment if you can avoid it. They don't react well to tension either. While their compressive strength is high, you might be surprised how much weaker they are in tension, so they shouldn't be used as structural ceramics - that's a different industry.
Since the 4th grade, Thomas has had hands-on experience in materials science and engineering. "My father founded Ceramco in 1982 and consequently it has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember," he says. Ceramco manufactures components in a range of oxide ceramic materials for industrial markets using a proprietary low-pressure injection molding technique to produce highly complex shapes.
At an early age, Thomas took out the trash and cleaned floors, but by high school, he was making ceramic parts by running injection molding machines. Upon receiving his degree at Drexel, Thomas was equipped with the engineering knowledge that enabled him to do mechanical properties testing, product development, and processing improvement, eventually leading to the position of production manager with the company. Recently, his involvement with the company reached a whole new level.
"When my father passed away last year, it was time for me to do his job as President and CEO," Thomas says.
Thomas has acquired a wealth of knowledge growing up around his father's business, experiencing materials first hand. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of ceramics inside and out. He has also learned the best applications for ceramic components. "The truth is that ceramics are used in just about everything that makes this world go around, only you don't typically see them as they are hidden in the assembly or device, but they are critical to its functionality," he says.
In addition to his homegrown experience, the knowledge Thomas acquired while at Drexel helped to prepare him for his role at Ceramco, Inc.
"Having an engineering background is definitely important in the manufacturing business," Thomas says. "It is very useful to be able to make some quick calculations that are reliable and understanding the concept of how you arrived at your answer is key. At Drexel, I learned how to prioritize tasks and how to be practical. If you learn anything at Drexel, you should learn how to manage your time efficiently."
While at Drexel, Thomas worked in the lab of recently retired Professor Frank Ko. For his senior design project titled, "Carbon Nanotube Reinforced Recombinant Spider Silk," Thomas learned how to electrospin transgenic spider silk. His main objective was to incorporate CNT in the silk matrix to make a super strong material. While spider silk is a far stretch from the ceramic components that he uses today, Thomas's research at Drexel gave him valuable insight into the properties of various materials.
"We are constantly trying to improve our processing techniques," Thomas says. "Having a good foundation in materials, both from my education at Drexel and the hands-on experience gained at my co-ops, helped prepare me for the demanding position I have