ASU chosen to lead national nanotechnology site

September 16, 2015

Arizona State University has been chosen to lead a new National Science Foundation site that will provide a Southwest regional infrastructure to advance nanoscale science, engineering and technology research.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide a total of $81 million over five years to support 16 user facility sites as part of a new National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI). ASU’s site is funded at $800,000 per year for five years. ASU NanoFab ASU NanoFab is a flexible nano-processing facility that offers state-of-the-art device processing and characterization tools for university research and for external company prototype development. Begun in 1981, this facility, serving the Southwest, was one of 10 nanofabs affiliated with the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure Initiative, the predecessor to the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure program. It will now be part of the new Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest. Photo by: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

The ASU site, like the other hubs, will help researchers from universities, corporations and government to develop electrical, mechanical and biological systems whose components are smaller than the diameter of a human hair. This nanotechnology may be able to create new materials and devices with a vast range of applications: electronics, biomaterials energy production, or consumer goods.

The NNCI sites will provide researchers access to university facilities with leading-edge fabrication and characterization tools, instrumentation, and expertise within all disciplines of nanoscale science, engineering and technology.

Nanotechnology systems are built at the molecular level of less than 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. To put that scale in perspective, the diameter of a human hair is in the range 50,000 to 75,000 nanometers.

The Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest

The NNCI award has been granted to Trevor Thornton, professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, one of the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He will be the principal investigator and director of the new Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest (NCI-SW).

The goals of the NCI-SW site are to build a Southwest regional infrastructure for nanotechnology discovery and innovation, to address societal needs through education and entrepreneurship and to serve as a model site of the NNCI.

Key partners include the Maricopa County Community College District and Science Foundation Arizona.

Co-principal investigators from ASU include Stuart Bowden, associate research professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering; Jenefer Husman, associate professor in the Sanford School; and Jameson Wetmore, associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, and School of Human Evolution & Social Change.

The NNCI framework builds on the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), which enabled major discoveries, innovations and contributions to education and commerce for more than 10 years.

“NSF’s long-standing investments in nanotechnology infrastructure have helped the research community to make great progress by making research facilities available,” said Pramod Khargonekar, the NSF’s assistant director for engineering. “NNCI will serve as a nationwide backbone for nanoscale research, which will lead to continuing innovations and economic and societal benefits.”

According to Thornton, ASU has a well-established nanotechnology infrastructure, with faculty strengths that transcend disciplines.

“This gave us a competitive advantage in being chosen for this award,” he said. “We also successfully directed the NSF predecessor to the NNCI centers, a NNIN site — ASU NanoFab — that wrapped up 6 years of funding at the end of August. The NNCI allows us to expand our offerings and outreach in a big way.”

The NCI-SW site will encompass six collaborative research facilities: the ASU NanoFab, the LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science, the Flexible Electronics and Display Center, the Peptide Array Core Facility, the Solar Power Laboratory, and the User Facility for the Social and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology.

The NCI-SW site will open the Flexible Electronics and Display Center and the Solar Power Laboratory to the broader research community for the first time.

Societal impacts of nanotechnology

The site will provide particular intellectual and infrastructural strengths in the life sciences, flexible electronics, renewable energy and the societal impact of nanotechnology.

Wetmore will be leading the Social and Ethical Implications component of ASU's NNCI effort.

The Social and Ethical Implications component is made up of two parts: 1) building a social science "user facility" where scholars can come to ASU to learn to use tools to help them collaborate across disciplines and develop a better understanding of the past, present and future social implications of science and technology; and 2) offering programs that train scientists and engineers in how to identify and think about the social aspects and implications of their work.

"The NNCI effort at ASU is exciting because it is a blending of scientists, engineers and social scientists working together not just in name, but in practice,” Wetmore said. "Those involved have a long history of working together and look forward to continuing to develop an engineering workforce that can see the big picture and better work towards social goods."

Building an educated workforce

“What also is outstanding about this program is that it not only focuses on building a nanotech industry, it is equally concerned with creating an educated workforce. Our efforts will span from K-12 all the way to working professionals,” Thornton said.

ASU will collaborate with the Maricopa County Community College District and Science Foundation Arizona to develop STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) materials with a nanotechnology focus for Associate of Science and Associate of Applied Science students in communities throughout metropolitan Phoenix and rural Arizona.

ASU also will provide entrepreneurship training for users who wish to commercialize nanotechnology in order to benefit society. To facilitate the commercialization of research breakthroughs, the NCI-SW will support prototyping facilities and low-volume manufacturing pilot lines for solar cells, flexible electronics and biomolecular arrays.

The Science Outside the Lab summer program at the ASU Washington, D.C., campus will allow users across the NNCI to explore the policy issues associated with nanotechnology.

A web portal hosted and maintained by the Maricopa County Community College District will provide seamless access to all the resources of the NCI-SW.

Through a FY 2016 competition, one of the newly awarded sites will be chosen to coordinate the facilities.

This coordinating office will enhance the sites’ impact as a national nanotechnology infrastructure and establish a web portal to link the individual facilities’ websites to provide a unified entry point to the user community of overall capabilities, tools and instrumentation. The office also will help to coordinate and disseminate best practices for national-level education and outreach programs.

Funding for the NNCI program is provided by all NSF directorates and the Office of International Science and Engineering.

The 16 sites are in 15 states and involve 27 universities, including Stanford, Harvard, Cornell, the University of Texas-Austin, the University of Pennsylvania, North Carolina State University and Georgia Institute of Technology.

Senior personnel for the NCI-SW site include:

Associate Director Neal Woodbury, co-director of the Center for Innovations in Medicine, The Biodesign Institute: Bio-Nanomedicine

Associate Director Thomas Sharp, professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration: Geological Sciences

Flexible Electronics: Mark Strnad, associate director of the ASU Flexible Electronics & Display Center

Environmental Sciences: Paul Westerhoff, vice provost for academic research programming and professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment

Nanotechnology Modeling Tools: Dragica Vasileska, professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering

Entrepreneurial Programs: Audrey Iffert, executive director, ASU Entrepreneurship & Innovation

Web Portal: Michael Lesiecki, Maricopa County Community College District, executive director, Maricopa Advanced Technology Education Center

STEM Outreach: Caroline VanIngen-Dunn, senior manager, Science Foundation Arizona STEM Pathways

Sharon Keeler

associate director, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU Black Belt program helps create great leaders

September 16, 2015

Bill Denzer had plenty of management experience by the time he enrolled in the Six Sigma Master Black Belt program at Arizona State University in 2013.

Equipped with an MBA he earned at ASU, Denzer began his management career as an electronics manufacturing supervisor for Motorola before moving on to similar positions with medical device manufacturing companies. He later ran operations for two start-ups in the medical imaging and fiber optic technologies fields. ASU Six Sigma Master Black Belt program Russ Elias brings experience from 30 years of teaching Lean Six Sigma and related management courses to his classes in the Master Black Belt program at Arizona State University. Photo by: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

He was in his current job as vice president of manufacturing operations for TASER International, the major personal defense and security technology company, when he met the leaders of the Master Black Belt program run by the Office of Global Outreach and Extended Education in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

They helped Denzer provide Lean Six Sigma Greenbelt management training for TASER employees. During the course of the project, Denzer decided that even with his decades of extensive business expertise he could still benefit from the higher level of Six Sigma management training, including categories called Black Belt and Master Black Belt.

“I did some research and found that ASU had one of the top Master Black Belt programs in the world, so it was an easy choice,” he said.

Denzer became one of more than 100 people to complete the program at ASU since it started in 2008. He has now helped TASER put 30 of its employees through Lean Greenbelt training and another five through ASU’s Black Belt program.

All the training “has made a significant impact on the quality and reliability of our products,” Denzer said. “I would recommend the program to anyone trying to drive change in their organization.”

Training to be a change agent

Students in the highly interactive, hybrid-format program undergo five days of intensive classroom studies on ASU’s Tempe campus. They then have three months of open access to five graduate-level online courses to study material that can prepare them to produce the “white paper” the Master Black Belt program requires. The assignment tasks students to define and defend their organization's “Operational Excellence” strategy.

The white paper is a unique feature of the training, an assessment that allows students to apply what they are learning in the program while also providing their employers with a high-quality and well-vetted strategic plan.

Six Sigma programs focus on systematic approaches to improve a broad range of processes that apply to a variety of business operations.

In addition to the technical aspects of process improvement — logistics, data analysis, statistical methods, design of experiments — the Master Black Belt delves into organizational communication skills, sociology and industrial psychology, with the aim of “training people in the art of being a change agent,” said Russ Elias, a professor of practice and affiliate faculty member for ASU’s program.

“You learn how to orchestrate human interactions to engage people in problem solving. We give students a tool kit for doing this and perspectives on how to use the tool kit,” Elias said.

Collaborative approach to learning

The program is typically drawing 12 to 15 students per session — including a fair percentage from throughout the United States and some from elsewhere, particularly Europe and Asia. The diversity of the students is proving to be an attraction.

“You get valuable opportunities to learn with and from people from a variety of backgrounds and professions. There are engineers, business managers and consultants, and small-business owners,” said Douglas Montgomery, the lead faculty member for the Master Black Belt program and an ASU Regents’ Professor in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Even though the program is delivered largely online, “the students develop camaraderie and they collaborate and help each other,” Montgomery said.

Students get a variety of perspectives on process management from guest lecturers, including industry leaders, corporate executives and seasoned business consultants and entrepreneurs.

Students also have access to academic coaches — either ASU faculty members or industry representatives — to provide them with mentorship and assistance.

Teachers with industry experience

But the core strength of the program is the quality and experience of the faculty, said Karl Theisen, associate director for professional and executive programs for Global Outreach and Extended Education.

“You are being taught by faculty who not only understand the theory behind the material they are teaching, but understand the real-world applications of that theory," Theisen said. “They have conducted extensive research in their areas of expertise and put it into practice in their work as industry consultants.”

Montgomery is widely recognized as a pioneer and international leader in contemporary industrial statistics, quality engineering and operations research.

Elias, who has a doctorate degree in industrial systems engineering, worked in engineering and management for Motorola for almost two decades and has taught Six Sigma courses and related management classes for almost 30 years for companies and at ASU.

Connie Borror is an ASU Foundation Professor of statistics and the interim director of the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. For more than 15 years, she has taught Six Sigma courses for in-house company training programs and has been an adviser and mentor for more than 70 Six Sigma projects for ASU extended-education students.

Dan Shunk, a professor of industrial engineering in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, is an expert in supply network integration and an experienced extended-education teacher and management training instructor.

Focus on applying what you learn

“The faculty at ASU made the difference. Their understanding and appreciation for Six Sigma is evident in their instruction methodology,” said Jackie Eisele, who recently completed the Master Black Belt program.

Eisele was global director of supply chain management for Nelson Global Products at the time she studied in the program. She said the program’s white paper assignment was especially valuable because “it forces students to demonstrate how they are going to move themselves and their companies forward.”

Eisele said she recommends the ASU training “because students will walk away from the experience with a better knowledge of tools and the application of them, and understanding the results” of leading a company through a change in management culture.

“We learn as much from the students as they do from us,” said professor Borror. “Each new application they bring to the class can be used by the faculty to demonstrate to the next generation of Greenbelts, Black Belts and Master Black Belts how various methods work and under what situations.”

Tools to reignite careers

Ofelia Burns, who earned a degree in industrial systems engineering, had more than a decade of experience in manufacturing and process engineering when she was laid off during the recent economic recession.

Burns got into a City of Phoenix program to help unemployed skilled professionals re-enter the workforce. That helped her obtain a federal scholarship to enroll in a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification training session that ASU customized for the city program.

The program required an internship, and Burns found one working for a pipe manufacturing plant. Her performance led the plant manager to later hire her for a temporary assignment as a consultant.

The four-week Lean Black Belt certification program is tailored to engineers and managers who oversee tactical and strategic business projects, but Burns felt she needed more advanced training if she was to reignite her career.

She enrolled in the Master Black Belt program “because I new it would give me an even stronger edge in the workplace,” she said. “The skills you gain make you more competitive and well prepared to help businesses solve their problems.”

She found the project management and risk management material taught by Daniel McCarville to be especially valuable. Those particular skills are now in demand for almost any upper management job, Burns said.

McCarville is a professor of practice who brings 27 years of industry experience to the Master Black Belt programs and chair of the engineering management program. Before coming to ASU, he led teams through the development and implementations of large-scale quality systems and complex manufacturing processes.

Burns’ temporary consulting assignment for the pipe manufacturing operation turned into a three-year stint, during which time she established herself as a self-employed consultant.

“I would not have had the confidence to become an independent business consultant without the Black Belt certifications and the support from ASU,” she said.

Burns recently joined a major company in the aerospace industry, UTC Aerospace Systems. She is now the company’s lead for its Achieving Competitive Excellence (ACE) Lean program.

Over the years the Master Black Belt faculty has been seeing a growing number students like Burns, who credit the program for helping them add to their professional achievements.

“We hear from students who say that the training has helped them move up in their companies or gave them the ability to get better jobs with their new skills,” Borror said. “We hear how they have been able to help improve processes, reduce waste and contribute to their companies’ overall missions.”

Sometimes former students seek guidance from professors on how to solve problems or manage work projects.

“That shows the trust they have in us and how they value what we provided them,” Borror added. “That is the ultimate reward for professors teaching Master Black Belt courses.”

Read more about the Master Black Belt program at ASU or contact Karl Theisin at

ASU student Jiaqi Wu contributed to this story.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering