Engineering Now 2009

Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE)

Finally, great-grandparents will no longer recognize the labs

Phillip Ratcliff, the shop manager for the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering's (ISE) Harris Manufacturing Process Laboratory, is almost being sarcastic when he says students were using equipment their great-grandparents used until just a couple of years ago.


Located in the basement of Whittemore Hall, the Harris lab, up until 2007, did have lathes that dated from the 1940s and welders from the 1960s, along with other decades-old equipment. Added G. Don Taylor, the Charles O. Gordon Chaired Professor of ISE and head of the department, “A lot of the equipment was antiquated. You'd walk past the front door, and you would see equipment from the 1940s.”

The engineering fee has changed that. Since 2007, funds from the fees have helped buy not only newer equipment, but the same type of digitized tools that are being used commercially throughout the world. Taylor said the new equipment in the lab has contributed to the success of his department, recently ranked in the top 10 among undergraduate programs for industrial engineering by industry stalwart U.S. News & World Report. “It's been huge,” he said. “This new equipment is just more modern. It's more precise, and safer. A lot more students will use this when they get out there and work.”

Ratcliff has run the lab since 1996. But it has only been in the past two years, with the inception of the student engineering fee, that he has seen equipment replaced.

In a workshop off the main shop room floor, Ratcliff showed off two hardness testers. One is at least 25 years old and relies on a tricky series of levers and a dial with a needle for reading; the other is two years old, is as easy to use as a potter's hand wheel, and takes exact digital measurements.  “It takes away the guessing,” Ratcliff said, of the newer piece of equipment. “It has been reliable ever since” it was purchased two years ago.

The main shop floor is where the significant changes have come. Six new lathes are lined up, nearly side by side. The machines, purchased over a period of two years in 2007 and 2008 are almost new looking, and have digital reader screens attached to their tops. A stop bar is at the bottom of each machine, a safety feature not found on older pieces of equipment.

Ratcliff has photographs of the older lathes — greenish-gray machines that would look at home in a Life magazine profile on a machine shop circa World War II or the beginnings of the Cold War. Yet students wearing present-day clothing are at the controls. The retired lathes, like much of the older equipment in the shop, was so old that its only resale value came from metal scrappers looking for copper and other valuable parts to tear off.

When the older machines broke down, it proved frustrating. The maker, Washington state's South Bend, long ago had discontinued the model. “We had to beg, borrow, and steal to get replacement parts,” Ratcliff said.

A new vertical mill, used to cut flat metal, also replaced a decades-old piece of equipment. Similar to the lathes, this newer piece of equipment has digital computer controls, but for now the lab is using it on a manual basis. In a smaller room off to the side of the main floor, six new, smallish welders replaced six hulking welders that were past their prime and prone to shorting out. Also, the room itself has been refurbished. A makeshift linking of rails and curtains, and a long workbench used by six welders, have been replaced by new dividers and six smaller tables that separate each welder from one another. A line of new helmets hang on the wall. Each helmet is solar-operated and its eye-view glass tints when light hits it. These safer, sleeker helmets replace older pieces that relied on batteries to dim their eye-view areas and were more cumbersome to wear and operate. “It's a safety issue,” Ratcliff said. “They're easier to use.”

Ratcliff said the new equipment is a morale booster to students. And no money is spent unless the need is pressing. “I spend money tighter there than I do at home, and I'm tight at home,” Ratcliff said. That said, if not for the fee, then “we'd still have the same old equipment sitting here.”

Taylor is proud of the changes. “We had a fellow retire as shop manger a few years ago, and he came in recently and didn't recognize the place,” Taylor said.