Shop designer brings research ideas to life

Gary Held’s father, an auto mechanic, wanted his son to attend college so he wouldn’t have to get his hands greasy and dirty, like him.

Today, Held, armed with a degree in industrial education from Washington State University, spends his days plunging his hands into all types of electrical, mechanical and computerized construction and maintenance projects — including greasy ones — in the Dana Hall engineering shop. His efforts are focused on constructing devices to support university research projects.

“I fix, build and design things, and sometimes teach students,” said Held, engineer technician III for the Engineering Shops Department. “I do a little bit of everything.”

Held works primarily for the College of Engineering and Architecture — but also for the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition — designing and constructing pieces necessary for the completion of research projects.

Over the years he has built a wide diversity of objects, from a high voltage focusing tower used to separate proteins for chemical engineering, to a device that attaches to a mouse heart for veterinary research.

Tech saves time
During his 26 years as a machinery mechanic/instrument maker/engineering technician, new technology has consistently kept his work challenging.

Fifteen years ago, he spent weeks at a time manually inputting coding — groups of coordinates — into a deck-writer machine. Coding is necessary to convert elements of a drawing into language the machines can read. From there, computer numerical control machines decipher the coding and construct the object depending on X, Y and Z coordinates.

“I’d type one line of coding at a time, and if I had one comma wrong, I’d have to start over,” Held said. “It took sometimes 2 1/2 weeks to finish the coding.”

Today, Held and his co-workers use Mastercam, a computer program that allows them to design a project and, with the click of a button, transfer the designs into coding for the machines.

“We had the machines for several years before we got the software for them,” he said. “It was like having a Ferrari and only driving 20 miles per hour.”

New technology has improved productivity. Held and his colleagues can work on several things at once, all in various stages of production.

Vision becomes reality
Researchers appreciate Held’s work because he makes their ideas come to life. Held can do what a lot of people cannot; he is a master at conceptualizing, designing and creating 3-D objects. Researchers often come up with ideas, but cannot turn them into tangible objects.

Researchers aren’t the only ones who appreciate his talent. In the mid 1980s, Held constructed an object that gave him international appreciation. He was featured on the TV show “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” then hosted by Marie Osmond, for constructing the world’s first rear prosthetic leg for a horse.

Typically, when horses break their legs, they are put down; however, when a thoroughbred race horse broke his leg, the veterinary school was asked to save him. They conducted a successful partial amputation of the leg and asked Held, who watched the amputation, to make a mold of the leg and create a prosthetic.

Soon after this success, the vet school received a call from the sheikh of Bahrain, a small island located in the center of the Persian Gulf, asking for help for his horse with a similar problem.

“It was my 15 minutes of fame,” Held said.

Skills go beyond job
Held truly enjoys his work, and he often spends extra hours at the shop doing community service projects.

One of the most visible examples is the clock located in downtown Pullman, which took 10 years to construct and includes a time capsule that he made with his children.

“It’s advantageous to do community service work, because it gives me more training,” Held said.

One of the best parts of his job, he said, is that each new project brings a unique challenge, which allows him to be creative.

“When I first started this job, it was frustrating, because I knew what I wanted to make but didn’t know how,” he said. “Now, I have a lot better idea of what to do.”

And, despite his father’s intentions, Held finds joy in getting his hands dirty, and WSU researchers are grateful for that.

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