The Engineering and Science Research Support Facility (ESRSF), better known as “the machine shop,” helps University of Nebraska– Lincoln faculty turn innovative ideas into reality. After creating design prototypes, professors from the College of Engineering and across campus hire the machine shop to manufacture life-size, working versions. The high-profile projects ESRSF manufactures for UNL have attracted other researchers’ attention, and the shop is known internationally for manufacturing equipment for glaciology, ocean exploration, geosciences, space exploration and medical research.
“Tool makers, in general, have design knowledge,” McManis said. “It’s not the same professional background (as engineering), but it’s a unique skill to be able to manufacture the tools that engineers have created.”
McManis has been ESRSF’s manager since 1986 when the college consolidated the engineering mechanics and mechanical engineering machine shops. In addition to Mc- Manis, ESRSF has four full-time technicians, each with a technical specialty. Mike Long is the shop’s foreman and makes tools and instruments, welds and makes machinery. John Hudgens and Mark Stroup handle construction, machine fabrication and welding. Stroup also specializes in working with exotic materials and CNC machinings. Ron Auman maintains the machine shop’s equipment and the college’s lab equipment. The group has 71 combined years of experience at the shop.
ESRSF undertakes about five major projects a year and handles up to 30 smaller repair and maintenance jobs daily. Working in an academic environment requires creativity and patience to complete projects that may take months, or even years, to complete, McManis said.
The shop is working with mechanical engineering professor Shane Farritor to build camera-carrying robots that could be inserted in a patient’s body through tiny incisions, giving surgeons better visibility of an injury. ESRSF also has helped Farritor build prototypes of space exploration robots and robots that measure traffic and road conditions.
ESRSF has been involved with an increasing number of transportation projects in recent years. The first prototype of the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier for racetracks was built in the shop. The barrier was designed to reduce the severity of crashes by absorbing energy, then distributing it evenly across the wall without forcing the car back into traffic.
For Stroup, a senior in construction management, building the SAFER barrier is one of the highlights of his five-year career with ESRSF. “I like being able to relate what I’m working on to the finished product,” Stroup said. “It’s neat to be able to say, ‘Wow, I worked on that.’”
McManis said one of the greatest rewards of his job is learning about professors receiving grants or recognition because of technology they developed with ESRSF’s help. Hudgens, an avid viewer of the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, said both channels occasionally air documentaries that show equipment the shop has manufactured.
In addition to helping faculty, ESRSF assists with undergraduate labs and advises students. Farritor is one instructor who encourages his students to work with ESRSF technicians on their design projects. “The machine shop does a very good job of working with my students to teach them what can and can’t be done, or how to do things better,” Farritor said.
Auman, a 15-year technician, works alongside students in the MECH 487 lab and is valued for his ability to get older, finicky equipment to run smoothly. He admits that he enjoys showing students how to use equipment “the old-fashioned way.”
“Most kids just want to do everything on the computer, but they still need to learn how to check the equipment and troubleshoot problems in case they ever work somewhere that doesn’t have computers to control all the equipment,” he said.
Hudgens helps students construct the cages and framework for the Mini Baja, an all-terrain vehicle that students build for an annual Society of Automotive Engineers competition. The cars must be durable, yet flexible enough to withstand a series of tests that includes acceleration, agility, a hill climb, a rock climb and endurance.
ESRSF established its national reputation in the early 1970s when the College of Engineering received a polar ice-coring grant from the National Science Foundation. The shop built a 5.2-inch drill that can penetrate 3,000 meters to retrieve an ice core in the glaciers of Antarctica. ESRSF spent two years designing and manufacturing the drill, which is still used today by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the current grant holder.
Since then, Texas A&M University has hired ESRSF to design and build a drill to gather hydrate deposits in the Gulf of Mexico. The shop also has manufactured other units to gather geological and sediment samples from river, lake and ocean basins. An insurance company hired the machine shop to build a grain bin explosion simulator that the company uses for safety training exercises.
“We have experience that few others do in creating equipment that works in remote, extreme areas,” McManis said.
The shop’s clients include the University of Stockholm in Sweden, the Laboratory of Glaciology in France and Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national power company.
The nature of ESRSF’s work leaves no room for mistakes, and employee training must be worked into tight production deadlines. While pursuing a master’s degree in educational psychology, McManis researched adult learning behaviors in manufacturing environments. Now he develops training programs for ESRSF and private companies.
With such diversity in projects and clientele, each day presents new challenges, the technicians said. Sometimes, a client knows what he or she wants to accomplish, but doesn’t know how to design it. Or worse, an idea that looked good on paper is difficult, if not impossible, to create.
“Good tool makers can foresee potential problems and communicate those to the engineer,” McManis said. “Anyone can draw anything on a computer now. But is it produceable?”
It’s the technicians’ expertise, plus ESRSF’s ability to affordably manufacture high-precision implements, that keeps clients like civil engineering professor David Admiraal returning. “I always try to work with them when I can,” Admiraal said. “When I do, it’s a huge help.”