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Fabricating magic for engineering, architecture

WSU College of Engineering and Architecture Design and Fabrication Shop crew
Gary Held, Eric Barrow, Miles Pepper, in the College of Engineering and Architecture Design and Fabrication Shop.

PULLMAN, Wash. – Miles Pepper sits between two desks, his profile obscured slightly by silver metal gadgets, spare parts and a stack of work orders. Pictures of various machines flash by on the computer behind him as a student comes in with a block of wood in hand. The student asks Pepper if he can transform the wood into a hollow pipe.

“And you have to use wood for this? We have other materials you could go with, acrylic or so on…but if it needs to be wood we can do that too,” as Pepper says this, another student walks in and waits in the doorway between the cluttered office and the large, cluttered shop.

This is a typical day in the College of Engineering and Architecture Design and Fabrication Shop.

Six-armed man

Graduate students frequently come down to ask for a new part for an existing machine, or for help designing a new machine all together. There’s a white board by Mile’s desk that lists all of the jobs under three names: Miles, Gary and Gary’s Clone. Next to Gary’s Clone there is a stick figure drawing of a man with six arms.

“I just wrote Gary’s Clone up there and gave him six arms because he can do so many things at once,” said Pepper, the shop manager.

35 years of fabrication magic

Engineering and Architecture fabrication shop in 1970s.

Gary Held has worked in the shop for 35 years and Pepper for a little over five. The two of them and Eric Barrow, a recent mechanical engineering graduate, work with CEA’s faculty members, graduate students and student clubs to fabricate the parts, tools and machines needed for their research and competitions.

Since 1904

The College of Engineering and Architecture has had shops since at least 1904, and they came together as a support unit of the Division of Industrial Research in the 1940s. When the DIR was disbanded in the late 1960s, the shop in the basement of Dana merged with the mechanical engineering labs to form shops for mechanical engineering, and eventually transitioned to serving the entire College of Engineering and Architecture and beyond.

Held has watched technology increase the capabilities of the shop, which handles over 400 work orders a year from many different departments.

Melding a variety of backgrounds, training

Held graduated with a degree from WSU in industrial education, and does a majority of the manufacturing.

Pepper’s background is less conventional. In 1994 he graduated from WSU with a master in fine arts for sculpting. After a year of teaching, he built a studio at his house and started getting commissions to build public art pieces in towns throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“I work with metal and moving parts, so in addition to aesthetic concerns, I had to think about erosion, wind, weather and making it work,” Pepper said. “Since these were art pieces I designed, I had to find my own path in how to build them, and that is something I brought to the table in this position.”

Pepper’s experience in solving mechanical challenges, and Held’s shop knowledge and

expertise leads to creative problem solving and design collaboration.

Tackling projects that ‘won’t work’

“Gary and Miles will take on projects other people say won’t work, and their prices will be better than other places,” said Jake Leachman, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering.

An example of one such project is the vacuum chamber that they made a couple years ago. Leachman’s graduate student Jake Fischer needed the chamber for his research on hydrogen fusion, a process that produces a solid ribbon of hydrogen that could be used to fuel space rockets or hypersonic vehicles.

Held worked with Fischer on fabricating the vacuum chamber, and it ended up costing about one third the price of ordering it from an outside company. The money saved on that chamber allowed Leachman’s lab to purchase a cryogenic generator, which led to Leachman’s first research grant from the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture that provides space launch services to the U.S.

“There are so many hidden perks to having shops right down the hall. The work they do is indispensible,” Leachman said.

Every day and project is unique

The projects that come through the shops vary greatly. Held and Pepper have designed and built custom instruments such as a device that can simulate the Northwest’s irregular rain patterns, a centrifuge where knee cartilage stem cells can grow, and an interchangeable cartridge system for a desktop learning module.

In fact, that last one was such a unique and effective design that the British education

equipment company Armfield Inc. is manufacturing and selling the device.

“I guess I’ve stuck around so long because every day is different. I’ve gotten to a point where I have built enough of a tool box up here,” Held taps on his head, “that I have an idea of what can be done for most any project that comes in.”

Building student relationships

Held also has relationships with many of the graduate students that come work with him. While some projects take a couple days to complete, many others require months of trial and error.

Held and Pepper get to know students pretty well in that amount of time, and have attended several dissertations.

“While the major projects are important, the graduate student that comes in with a stripped screw that needs replacing right away is just as important,” Held said. “That’s what we’re here for, to help the researchers be as successful in their projects as possible.

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