UD tops $100M in research for first time

Expertise in materials, sensors boosts partnerships with base, Air Force


1949: Wright-Patterson Air Force Base awards a $10,2000 contract to the University of Dayton to help research aircraft fatigue.

Sept. 1, 1956: The University of Dayton Research Institute is formally created.

1957: UDRI begins its materials research. Since 2002, UD has been ranked first, second or third among U.S. colleges for the amount of its sponsored materials research, according to the National Science Foundation.

1967: UDRI helps set up a rain-erosion test facility at Wright-Patterson to test the damaging effects of rain on aircraft.

1976: UDRI evaluated and tested tiles for the space shuttle.

1990: UDRI is certified as the only U.S. source for shock testing crash-survivable memory units for aircraft "black boxes." The university remains the only U.S. source for this testing.

1995: UDRI researchers begin testing advanced composite materials technology.

2003: UDRI tops the $1 billion mark in sponsored research.

Source: UDRI

For the first time in its history, the University of Dayton Research Institute has surpassed more than $100 million in sponsored research and development in a year.

Research at UDRI totaled about $117 million in fiscal year 2016, an increase of nearly 20 percent over 2015’s mark, the university announced today as it celebrated its 60th anniversary of materials research, sensors research — and that life-changing invention, the pouch that keeps your delivered pizza warm.

The amount pushes the institute’s cumulative sponsored research past $2 billion — an impressive milestone officials said for what was once seen as a quiet, Midwestern Catholic university.

With those research dollars comes high-paying jobs: About a third of the institute’s 515 employees have been hired just in the past three years, UDRI officials say.

“This is one of those businesses where we can only do more with more,” said John Leland, UD’s vice president for research and executive director of UDRI. “When we grow, we add people.”

UDRI is doing this at a challenging time, when federal sequestration imposes automatic spending cuts, a process some decry as indiscriminate and especially harsh against defense and the Air Force.

Fully 80 percent of UDRI’s funding comes from federal sources — the departments of defense and energy, NASA and other federal departments.

“Two years ago we had sequestration,” Leland said in an interview in his fifth floor office on UD’s River Campus, the former NCR Corp. world headquarters. “It was really rough here. We eked out a fraction of a percent gain over the previous year – which is essentially going backwards for us.”

In fiscal 2014, a number of observers thought, “This (sequestration) will be a hole we will dig out of,” Leland recalled.

They did. In fiscal 2015, UDRI saw nearly 13 percent growth in sponsored research and nearly 20 percent in the last fiscal year.

“That’s not going to keep stair-stepping up,” Leland said. “It’s going to taper up.”

He is proud of how adaptable UDRI’s small army of researchers and staff have proven to be.

“They didn’t let sequestration get them off their game,” Leland said. “They all stayed focused on their individual opportunities.”

Research at UD is not driven from the top down, said Allan Crasto, UDRI director. If a project is not unethical, illegal or immoral, and if it fits within UD’s Catholic Marianist philosophy and mission, researchers can pursue their work, he said.

“We don’t go out and tell our folks what to do,” Crasto said.

The first contract for what became UDRI — struck in 1949 — was with a partner who remains important to this day, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The contract was for $10,200.

Sashi Sharma is deputy division chief of Air Force Research Laboratory’s Systems Support Division, at Wright-Patterson. He has worked with the institute for some 25 years.

When AFRL needs a “fresh perspective,” AFRL turns to researchers in industry and academia, Sharma said.

“Composites is one area where they helped us, big-time,” he said. “Lubricants, sealants, seals, coatings for corrosion resistance. Corrosion resistant testing, they have some excellent valuable expertise in that area.”

A 2015 Air Force contract for $99 million stands as UDRI’s biggest job. The five-year contract will focus on harnessing and adapting technologies to sustain older Air Force aircraft. The institute is using technologies such as additive manufacturing — also known as 3-D printing — and laser robotic painting and de-painting to help keep older planes flying, Crasto said.

But the institute also fields smaller jobs. It takes purchase orders as small as $200, Crasto said.

“We have folks who are adept at problem-solving, technical problem solving,” he said.

What does the future hold? No one has a crystal ball, but Leland expects UDRI to take the road less travelled, carving its own niche along the way.

Like the pouch that protects delivered pizzas and the mechanism that alerts drivers to change their vehicle’s oil — both developed at UDRI — the institute’s work may lead to surprises.

“I can tell you where technology is going, but that’s not necessarily where UDRI is going,” Leland said.

About the Author