Fea­ture: Univer­sity of Auck­land – Steve Hart

DEMM Engineering & Manufacturing - - CONTENTS - By Steve Hart

At the heart of the Univer­sity of Auck­land’s en­gi­neer­ing fac­ulty is a mod­ern work­shop, an in-house fa­cil­ity that’s used to fab­ri­cate items large and small for staff and stu­dents.

Steve War­ring­ton has been work­ing there for 28 years. Hav­ing joined as an ap­pren­tice, he stayed on and now runs the place as its tech­ni­cal ser­vices man­ager – as­sisted by 2IC se­nior tech­ni­cian Trevor Wald­meyer.

Apart from man­ag­ing a large work­load, with re­quests for cus­tom-de­signed one-off items, the shop is in­dis­tin­guish­able from most any you might see up and down the coun­try. Ex­cept this one, and its staff, are prob­a­bly pro­tected a bit more from the na­tion’s eco­nomic ups and down. There’s no short­age of work at this shop.

As he gives me the grand tour, I’m in­tro­duced to a mix­ture of old-school ma­chines and some very new equip­ment – such as a com­put­erised Cen­troid three­axis CNC mill, and a Fanuc Ro­bo­Drill that makes fast work of milling, drilling and tap­ping in a small en­clo­sure.

Steve’s re­luc­tant to say how much the univer­sity paid for the Ro­bo­Drill. One won­ders if they got a dis­count in ex­change for the man­u­fac­turer get­ting some ku­dos for hav­ing it used in one of the coun­try’s lead­ing in­sti­tu­tions.

Off to one side is a room hous­ing a 3D printer, a Pro Jet HD350 from 3D Sys­tems. It was fea­tured on TV3’s 3rd De­gree cur­rent af­fairs show in Septem­ber, us­ing a time-lapse video to show view­ers how it made a re­place­ment part for a dish­washer – a guide wheel for a crock­ery rack.

“It can do ex­cep­tion­ally fine de­tail print­ing,” says Steve. “But it is not fast and I can’t see any 3D ma­chines dis­rupt­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing any time soon.

“They are not up to the job of re­plac­ing in­jec­tion mould­ing ma­chines for mass pro­duced prod­ucts, and now there are metal in­jec­tion mould­ing ma­chines.

“3D print­ing ma­chines have a long way to go yet. But they cer­tainly have their place in man­u­fac­tur­ing, and they are a good tool in ma­chine shops such as ours, be­cause they al­low us to make things that can’t be made in con­ven­tional ma­chines.”

He cau­tions any­one buy­ing a 3D ma­chine to do their re­search be­fore sign­ing the con­tract.

“Each ma­chine seems to be su­per­seded by a more ad­vanced ver­sion ev­ery year,” he says. “So you need to do your re­search be­fore you spend your money and lock your­self into that tech­nol­ogy.”

Steve says the two liq­uids used by the HD350 to print solid ob­jects can cost $1350 for 2ltrs of base and support ma­te­rial.

“It can pro­duce some del­i­cate com­po­nents though,” he says hold­ing a small plas­tic fil­ter in his hand.

In a glass case, he points to a plas­tic pip­pet stand his team de­signed and built for the univer­sity’s sci­ence depart­ment.

“The pip­pet stands of­fered by sup­pli­ers tended to tip over when tall pip­pets were slot­ted in them, so we de­signed one that’s slightly taller, and has a wider base,” he says.

It’s a per­fect ex­am­ple of why the work­shop is there. If you can’t buy it, and hav­ing it pro­duced out­side takes too long and costs too much – Steve’s team can, as in the case of the cus­tom pip­pet stand, knock one out and solve prob­lems in-house quick smart. Although, not per­haps as quick as some might ex­pect.

Steve and his staff mainly work with aca­demic stu­dents, who can ar­rive on the shopfloor with less than per­fect draw­ings for him to work with. Health and safety rules means the ma­chines are only used by Steve’s qual­i­fied and trained staff.

“Some stu­dents are not able to draw very well us­ing CAD so we look care­fully at their plans,” he says. “We work with them on the 3D de­sign be­cause we un­der­stand what they want to achieve, and we help get them there.”

The day I was on site Steve’s team had 93 jobs in the queue – about 600 hours’ work. He says care­ful man­age­ment is needed to as­sign each job to the best ma­chine – jug­gling re­sources to keep ev­ery­thing mov­ing along. His aim is

to not have any ma­chines stand­ing idle. There’s plenty to keep the staff of 11 and one ap­pren­tice busy.

The ma­chine shop is run on a com­mer­cial ba­sis with ev­ery job re­quest be­ing es­ti­mated at the go­ing rate. The depart­ment has to pay its way, even if it is ‘sell­ing’ its ser­vices within the univer­sity.

“We cost out the ma­te­ri­als and labour, and let peo­ple know what the job will cost,” says Steve. “And we pro­vide es­ti­mates – not quotes – so we charge jobs cor­rectly. The house al­ways loses when you pro­vide a quote.”

Staff at the shop use elec­tronic job sheets that keep care­ful track of the time spent on each project.

“We are def­i­nitely run like a business,” says Steve.

Like any ma­chine shop, a business case has to be put for­ward for ev­ery piece of equip­ment it asks for. Over the last four years it has spent $700,000 on new equip­ment, and Steve has his eye on ac­quir­ing a five-axis in­set mill.

The ma­chine shop doesn’t have too much to do with busi­nesses out­side of the univer­sity. But will oc­ca­sion­ally call on help for items it is un­able to de­liver – per­haps due to time con­straints. How­ever, Steve says his team is of­ten able to pro­duce what it needs at a far cheaper rate than any sup­pli­ers could match.

A case in point is a few hun­dred cus­tom fas­ten­ers it was asked to make. After get­ting quotes from out­side com­pa­nies, Steve worked out they could pro­duce them for a frac­tion of the cost they were quoted.

“We just set the ma­chine up and let it run,” he says. “Also, a lot of firms just aren’t in­ter­ested in quot­ing us for spe­cialised items and such small runs, and the time it takes in con­vey­ing the specs to them, and agree­ing on ex­actly what we need, we may as well just do it our­selves.”

How­ever, firms do con­tact Steve to ask if the univer­sity’s work­shop can make prod­ucts for them. He’s al­ways pleased for the call, but says his team is nor­mally too busy to take on ‘out­side’ work. “Our pri­or­ity is our staff and stu­dents,” he says.

At­tract­ing and re­tain­ing en­gi­neer­ing staff is an on­go­ing is­sue. Steve is do­ing his best to invest in the fu­ture though by em­ploy­ing an ap­pren­tice.

“You have got to train your own guys,” he says. “We have one ap­pren­tice, and that is en­cour­ag­ing – although look­ing after an ap­pren­tice takes time and it is a huge in­vest­ment in train­ing them up on the tech­nol­ogy we have here.

“It is tough get­ting ex­pe­ri­enced and qual­i­fied staff. But I am sure that is the case with most firms, but we do have some tal­ented peo­ple com­ing through.”

Pho­tos: Steve Hart.

The work­shop at the Univer­sity of Auck­land is a busy place, with 600 hours of work on the books.

Steve War­ring­ton with an item made with the univer­sity’s Pro Jet HD350 printer.

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