Re-engineering the Machine Shop
New spaces and equipment remove barriers to inventiveness.
By Anna Fiorentino
Photography by John Sherman
Thayer School debuted its retooled machine shop fall term, complete with a larger space, reorganized layout, new equipment, and an expanded student task force to help run the shop. The improvements are making machining easier and safer than ever for students.
“Our mission is to be instructional,” says machine shop manager Kevin Baron. “We made it easier to learn how to get about in the machine shop by the location and selection of the tools.”
Walls were torn down to create an open-concept shop consisting of seven functional areas placed in logical adjacencies:
- fabrication lab (a.k.a. “Fab Lab”)
- polymer processing room
- router lab
- welding and fabrication lab
- stock room
- tool room (a.k.a. machine shop)
- tool crib
“The layout was important so students could see the coherence of how things got made,” says Baron. The openness also ensures that staff can keep an eye on students from any vantage point.
The Fab Lab, which is open around the clock, is a launch pad for fabrication. “The idea here was to equip a room with easy-to-use, easy-to-learn tools that students could access after hours,” says Baron. “We can teach a student to use the tools in a couple of hours, and it’s safe.”
But even in the Fab Lab students can create sophisticated projects. A 2Bot Model Maker allows them to carve a foam model they’ve made in SolidWorks in as few as 20 minutes. A rapid prototyper lets them easily output parts. A laser cutter produces precision-cut shapes from 2D CAD images. “All you need to do at the Fab Lab is bring in your file, plug it in, press a couple of buttons, and the machine will make the piece for you,” says machine shop design fellow Max Fagin Th’11, who helps students and faculty with design and fabrication work.
New equipment is boosting capabilities in other areas of the shop as well. About $700,000 in new mills, lathes, and other equipment replaced machinery that in some cases dated back to the World War II era. Reflecting changes in industry, all the new machines are digitally controlled.
“Software engineers are capturing in code all the expert knowledge that once made machining processes the domain of specialists. Now by answering questions, students are able to work way over their heads long before they’ve understood the details,” says Baron. It helps that all the new machines are alike, he adds. “The controls run every one of them. You learn how to use one, you can use all of them.”
In addition to the machine shop’s four professional instructors, a large cadre of student helpers supports other students working in the new space. “We are engaging students at every level of operation—as users, as shop assistants, and in strategic planning,” says Baron. Experienced students are trained to assist newer students with projects. Undergraduates carry out essential day-to-day tasks, such as keeping the shop clean, putting tools away, and being alert for unsafe conditions. Master of Engineering Management (M.E.M.) students help with operational strategies, including implementing a 5-S plan of workspace organization: sort, set in order, sweep, standardize, sustain. M.E.M. students are using social media to make the machine shop more user-friendly, and they’re creating an electronic catalog to capture institutional knowledge. Christian Ortiz Th’11, the machine shop’s first design fellow, helped develop the Fab Lab, and current design fellow Fagin has created several video tutorials to help students learn how to use equipment.
“I think the argument can be made that this is the finest machine shop accessible to undergraduates anywhere,” says Fagin. “Here we get the best of both worlds: a completely open machine shop and a professional level of equipment and instruction.”
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