Forging the gears of research

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Completing about 300 jobs a year, Engineering Technical Services’ Instrument and Prototype Machine Shop supports ASU students and professors by crafting custom parts and devices for research.

Senior machinist Dave Gillespie. Photo by Pete Zrioka.

By Pete Zrioka

April 14, 2011

Just looking into a display case outside the door of the Engineering Technical Services’ Instrument and Prototype Machine Shop, you can gauge the variety and extent of the projects they take on. In fact, the five machinists currently working there have completed more than 3,000 separate work orders – and that’s only since they started keeping track four years ago.

From big jobs like a groundwater testing device to small ones like components for microchips, the machine shop supports the students and professors of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, constructing custom parts, rigs and devices that aid in research.

Machinists Dennis Golabiewski, Dave Gillespie, Ben Schwatken, Dave Mushier and Marty Johnson bring more than 150 years of combined experience to the shop. The crew has expertise in fields ranging from aerospace, automotive and mechanical engineering to biomedical, materials and civil engineering, giving them a broad understanding of manufacturing processes, and prototype design, development and construction.

machinists of the Engineering Technical Services’ Instrument and Prototype Machine Shop
The machinists of the Engineering Technical Services’ Instrument and Prototype Machine Shop. Back row from left, Dave Mushier and Dennis Golabiewski. Front row from left, Dave Gillespie, Marty Johnson and Ben Schwatken.

When students bring in a concept or sketch, the machinists use their breadth of experience to help cultivate that idea into a functional product.

“We get designs and concepts on anything ranging from napkins and notebook paper to computer aided designs,” says Johnson, an instrument maker and designer. “It’s our job to figure out if it can work or not.”

Senior machinist Dave Gillespie has worked six years at the machine shop, but has been working as a machinist the majority of his life. "There's something very rewarding about building things from raw materials. Your can look into a hunk of aluminum and see what it can be," says Gillespie.

In addition to providing a degree of mentorship to students, the shop can provide their services at a significantly lower cost than found in a private machine shop.

“Researchers wouldn’t get this kind of work done for this price anywhere else,” says Gillespie.

The value of the shop lies not only in its pricing but also the range of projects the shop has in their collective portfolio.

Senior machinist Ben Schwatken
Senior machinist Ben Schwatken double checks measurements on the designs for a piece he's working on.


Machinist Dave Mushier
Machinist Dave Mushier uses a cylinder hone to polish the inside of a part.

Some of the shop’s more notable projects include creating parts for SPARKy, a lightweight prosthetic limb that uses a spring to allow amputees to walk easier and faster, designed by ASU Associate Professor Thomas Sugar. They’ve also provided components for flexible electronic display screens being developed at ASU’s Flexible Electronics and Display Center.

One of the shop’s largest projects was a 1/5-scale model of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station’s reactor fuel rods and cooling tanks. Measuring three feet in diameter and five feet high, the model was constructed for a Center for Environmental Fluid Dynamics graduate student.

To create such a diverse array of prototypes and parts, the shop boasts eight different milling machines, devices that craft complex parts out of solid materials. They also possess six lathes, machines that rotate materials to cut, sand or drill them.

Individual jobs can take anywhere from one or two hours to 1,000.

“The cool thing about this place is that we’re what a large manufacturer would call a ‘captured shop,’” says Golabiewski, the shop manager. “Meaning we’re on hand at anytime to help someone with a quick job. There are few, if any, machine shops in the Valley that will drop what they are doing for their regular customers to do a one-time job for someone they will never see again.”

He adds, “Here there are measures in place to make sure that a researcher can get the tooling he or she needs as soon as they need it. We’re here to help our researchers, scientists and students succeed in their endeavors.”

A research group led by associate engineering professor Rolf Halden, assistant director of the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology in the ASU’s Biodesign Institute, has relied heavily on the skills of the shop crew for the past three years.

For Halden’s work, the shop has built complex devices as small as a matchbox and as large as a 20-foot-long stainless steel pipe. That pipe had to be fitted with customized diagnostic instruments enabling it to be deployed in groundwater wells hundreds of feet below the ground surface.

The instruments had to function with a high degree of precision to perform the task of helping researchers determine the most effective methods for cleaning up ground water at its source.

“The shop is a great asset,” Halden says. “I don’t hesitate to recommend its services to any colleagues or students.”

Marty Johnson pushes a program into a drill
Marty Johnson, instrument maker and designer, punches a program into a computer numerical controlled mill. The program tells the machine exactly where to cut, drill, shave or sand the material its working on.

The shop has completed more than 60 projects in recent years for Steve Rednour, an equipment engineer at the Flexible Display Center.

“The time and money my department has saved has easily been in the thousands of dollars, and the shop’s estimates on costs and the time it will take to complete a job are always accurate,” he says.

The shop’s crew has also periodically “caught mistakes I made in my drawing and instructions,” and helped him make corrections, Rednour says. “They give close attention to detail. They really want to get projects done right.”

Civil engineering professor Edward Kavazanjian notes the machine shop’s added contribution as an educational asset.

The crew “helps educate students on how to prepare drawings and specifications that the shop can use to produce equipment necessary to perform research effectively,” Kavazanjian explains. “Producing those kinds of detailed drawings and designs is an essential skill students need to learn if they’re going to make research an essential part of their careers.”

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