Life in the Project Labs.
By Kathryn LoConte
Photographs by John Sherman
The air smells tinny. Machines hum and drone. Students wearing protective goggles weave their way among lathes and drills. Though the sights and sounds may seem familiar, this is no mere machine shop.
For decades Thayer’s machine shop has taught students how to manufacture products. Today the shop is one component in a sophisticated suite of project labs where students take ideas from sketch to prototype.
“The historical mission of the shop was to provide a useful skill set for practicing engineers,” says machine shop manager and instructor Kevin Baron. “The value of the workshop goes far beyond that these days. Students experience the ‘doing’ side of an engineering education. Every step in the manufacturing progression exposes them to important engineering considerations across a wide range of disciplines.”
“A variety of hands-on experiences is critical to the education of an engineer, and the machine shop provides one side of that,” says Professor Chris Levey, Director of Instructional Laboratories.
Keeping pace with industry advances in design and fabrication, Thayer’s project labs and machine shop offer an array of modern materials, techniques, and resources — including rapid prototyping, reverse engineering, laser scanning, digitizing, plastic injection molding, thermoforming, and vacuum casting for silicon molds.
“These additions bump up the level and the variety of what we do dramatically,” says Professor Laura Ray, who teaches ENGS 76: Machine Engineering and ENGS 146: Computer-Aided Mechanical Engineering Design.
The design and fabrication experience is integral to how Thayer educates engineers. “It gives them a connection between the classroom and the real world,” says Ray. “Granted, when they go out into the workforce, they’re not going to be machinists, but just to be able to understand how a machinist looks at things is so valuable.”
“At every level in the workplace you get this conflict of people who have fantastic ideas but no concept of how that idea can be carried through,” says machine shop instructor Leonard Parker. “But the student who leaves Thayer has built something, designed something, and carried it through to completion.”
Unlike most other engineering schools, Thayer School makes these resources available to students at all levels, even non-majors. In a case of less is more, Thayer’s compact size enables the personal attention that is essential for a hands-on, project-centered curriculum. “You can’t run this kind of program in a school that has 5,000 engineers,” says Baron.
“Most engineering schools have just a few machines run by technicians,” says instructor Pete Fontaine. “Here, the students run most of the machines for themselves, and we teach them how to do what they want to do.”
“Our focus is on instruction rather than simply fabricating parts to specification,” says Levey. “We engage students in the entire process.”
The machine shop experience ensures that education is more than the sum of parts. “We live in a world of such abundance that we forget that we stand on the shoulders of generations of engineers. The most common products — like door hinges, doorknobs, or locks — have had hundreds of years of development. It’s hard to make a door that closes right, but you think it’s easy because there are doors everywhere,” says Baron. “The work of our machine shop is to close the gap between imagination and skill.”
COUCH PRODUCT DESIGN LABORATORY
In the world of product development there is always a first step. For most students that first step takes place down the hall from the machine shop in the Couch Project Design Lab.
“Students need to toy with their ideas and develop an understanding of how mechanisms work,” says Levey. “And that’s what the Couch Lab is ideal for.”
Spacious enough for project teams to spread out their work, Couch acts as a kind of home base for students throughout the iterative product development process. Most importantly, says Baron, “the room is configured with friendly materials — foam core, Popsicle sticks, wood, and paper — so students can cobble together the sort of design mechanism they want to throw their weight behind.”
Getting started is trickier than some students expect. They quickly learn that they can’t jump from the Couch Lab to the machine shop with half-baked ideas.
“Students have to realize they can’t just hold their hands up and say they want something this long and this wide,” says Parker, gesticulating with his arms. “They need to translate it for us because we don’t know what they have in mind.”
“The biggest challenge for some of them is just to be able to write their ideas down on a piece of paper and develop a print,” says machine shop instructor Mike Ibey. “They discover that dimensioning and math and the sequencing of events are important. Some of them are dealing with real world considerations for the first time.”
THE ITERATIVE PROCESS: “Product development is not a serial process that moves in lockstep from project room to design studio to machine shop. The process is collaborative, concurrent, interdisciplinary, and iterative,” says Kevin Baron. “Students like to work serially, but the best designs result when students are willing to start over and over again.”
COMPUTER-AIDED DESIGN LABORATORY
The next step in the product development process brings students into the CAD labs, where they use Pro/ENGINEER, SolidWorks, and other computer-aided design software to create precise drawings of their project components. In this step of the process, young engineers come to an important realization.
“Engineering drawings are really the communication tool for engineers concerning their ideas,” says Levey. “If you want to communicate a physical design, you need to be able to draw it.”
Traditionally, product designs were limited to what engineers could readily draw, says Levey. “A decade ago, most electronic products, such as computers, were very boxy, defined by shapes easy to represent in a CAD program. The diverse curved shapes of products today provide more functionality and better aesthetics, but also require more sophisticated design tools,” he says.
Evolving design tools continue to open new worlds for students. “Students can build things on the rapid prototypers that they could not physically manufacture in real life,” says Fontaine. “And the shift in software over the years brings the engineering students more directly in line with what’s out there in the real world. People design primarily on computers now. So it pays to know this equipment.”
LAB EXPERIMENTS: “Our curriculum is heavily project oriented, and because projects have a physical reality, you need a way to produce them,” says Chris Levey. “Most people think of labs as the sort of traditional chemistry lab, where you have experiments and write-ups, but we see labs in a much broader context. The machine shop is part of our overall lab domain. Projects are basically open-ended lab experiments.”
THE MACHINE SHOP
The last piece of the puzzle is the oldest piece: the machine shop.
Students often walk through the shop’s doors with big dreams that the instructors and students must work on together to complete. But students quickly find that they can’t leave the hard work to the experts.
“When a student comes into the machine shop, the instructors don’t just tell the student what to do,” says Ray. “They listen and they sometimes turn things back to the student and tell them what they need to think about, rather than fixing it for them. The students really learn.”
“Our role here is to help them get through their projects. Keep them down to earth a little bit. We try to intercede and say that they gotta think about something a little bit more, maybe change their plans,” says Parker. “Sometimes I just stop and look at them and they’ll go, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I go, ‘Oh nothing.’ And they’ll stop and go, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ”
Students also quickly find that project work takes time. “A common experience of students is to discover that it takes longer to make things that they thought,” says Baron.
“I spent at least a hundred hours in the machine shop alone and another hundred on CAD,” says ENGS 76 student Aaron Gjerde, a B.E. candidate. “Our design required amazing precision. I polished parts by hand because they needed to slide against each other.”
But when deadlines loom, students may try to cut educational corners. “That’s the dark side of project work,” says Baron. “Students sometimes see the technical staff as obstacles to their progress because we’re trying to make sure they do things right, and they just want to get their projects done.
“We want to make sure that there is real learning going on and that their process is sound. While doing is important, we need to make sure that it’s a knowledgeable doing.”
SAFETY, SAFETY, SAFETY: “We have a safety orientation for students where we show them how to handle the machines and all the weird ways they can get hurt,” says Leonard Parker. “We want them to have fun but we don’t want them to be so relaxed that they get injured. We emphasize safety, safety, safety. We tell them to count their fingers and toes when they come in and make sure they’re still there when they leave.”
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