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Plastics Department Creates New Commencement Mace

Ingenuity, Collaboration Save University Thousands of Dollars

Plastics Engineering Asst. Prof. Stephen Johnston works on the design of the new commencement mace.

05/26/2010
By Sarah McAdams

A few months ago, it became obvious that UMass Lowell’s decades-old mace was no longer up to the task a task not involving chemical spray and self-protection, but rather one focused on authority, pageantry and leadership.

The mace, once a brutal weapon in medieval times used to pierce armor, has evolved into a ceremonial staff that signifies peaceful power; it is most often used to mark the beginning of convocation and commencement.

During the commencement procession at UMass Lowell, the grand marshal carries the mace, which symbolizes the authority vested in the Chancellor by the University’s Board of Trustees; the Chancellor follows behind the marshal, alone; in a place of honor; to end the procession.

“The old mace, which had been used for many years, had grown tired looking,” says Richard Sherburne, director of the Office of Special Events. “A small piece had actually broken off some years ago. It seemed like it was time for a change.”

However, when his team priced out maces, they were shocked to learn what a new one would cost: between $5,000 and $10,000.

“It didn’t seem like a wise purchase, so I spoke with our carpentry shop about them building a new one,” Sherburne says. “They didn’t feel they had the right tools, but they suggested I speak with Plastics Engineering, and we were off and running.”
The Plastics Engineering Department has fully automated rapid prototyping equipment that produces prototype plastic parts such as a new bulbous ornament to sit on the end of the mace’s existing wooden staff.

“We have the capabilities, using plastics prototyping, to create a customized, one-of-a-kind mace right on campus,” says Stephen Johnston, assistant professor of plastics engineering.

Plastics Chair Robert Malloy and Sherburne met several times before agreeing on a look for the finished product. Graphic Designer Paul Shilale of the Public Affairs Department provided the central design that the plastics team used as a starting point.

Johnston fabricated and tailored the design that Shilale provided, generating a 3D solid computer model. He then oversaw the prototyping process, in which the model was printed in a machine called a fused deposition modeler.

"This machine slices the solid computer model into virtual layers then extrudes thin layers of material one on top of another to generate the mace," he explains. "As the part is built layer-by-layer, it becomes necessary to add additional support material around the new model. This support material is dissolved away using a chemical bath after the build is completed."

The entire prototyping process took about 24 hours, Johnston says.

“Once that was done, Bob took the wooden staff of the original piece and gave it a complete facelift at his home spackling, sanding and painting,” Sherburne says. “After some energetic debate from all involved, we settled on the gold and black color combination we have now.”

The completed mace features a black and gold staff, with the bulbous gold ornament sitting atop it; gold medallions bearing the Massachusetts state seal are inlaid on both sides of the head. Text encircling the ornament lists the various names the University has held since its earliest days.

“With a little bit of finishing, you aren’t able to tell the difference between our mace and a $10,000 one,” says Johnston.

But “this project wasn’t simply a means of saving money although it certainly did that,” Sherburne says. “It was also a wonderful combination of in-house talent. It was the kind of collaboration that is a UMass Lowell hallmark.”

Created in a plastics engineering lab on campus, the new commencement mace is the result of a collaboration of in-house talent.