What goes on in Thayer’s shop?
We make things, and we make things that make things. Our laser cutters, 3-D printers, and machine tools let our engineers fashion products from plastics, composites, ceramics, graphite, glass, rubber, metal, and wood. We do machining, casting, injection molding, forming, 3-D scanning, digitizing, sculpting, and hand layup.
What do these machines cost?
Their prices are all over the lot. The most expensive ones cost about $60,000. They cut robust materials such as exotic alloys. CNC [computer numerical control] machines may be $10,000. They carve out 3-D shapes in soft materials.
What are you most proud of?
Dartmouth requires students to design patentable inventions in Engineering 21. At first I thought that was unfair, but students mostly succeed. Last fall and winter students made improvements to a gantry-style robotic farming machine that planted seeds, watered, and pulled weeds. They made it commercially viable.
What makes your shop unique?
It’s the intersection for diverse makers from arts and sciences, a return to the Renaissance model of studio work where innovators in engineering, art, and science collaborate.
What’s your biggest challenge?
My shop faces the same three problems every campus workshop faces: The staff is greatly outnumbered by its student clients, our clients are unskilled, and students need maximum support near the end of every term.
What’s the value of working with your hands?
It develops powerful problem-solving techniques. No one knows so clearly the difference between a problem set and a problem as the student who can’t get his Stirling engine to run. Students have long labored in contrived learning environments working on theoretical problems, but getting an engine to run can require all the senses. Everything needs to be seen, smelled, heard, and touched for a solution.
Have you ever had an accident?
I set a machine on fire—an electrical discharge machine, which is like a tiny arc welder. I pulled the electrode out while the spark was leaping, and vapor burst into flames. This produced a great sensation among student observers and was a topic of conversation for days. Things are not always predictable.
Photo by John Sherman