Carnegie Mellon Racing Shop machine decommissioned

Since its opening in the fall of 2017, the MakerWing on Hamerschlag C-level (newly dubbed Tech Spark) has been the backbone of hands-on learning at Carnegie Mellon. With ample hand tooling space, laser cutters, 3D-printers, mills, CNC machines, and a computer lab, it provides a space where students from the College of Engineering can come and learn — under supervision — the basics of rapid prototyping and product development. It even has a metal fabrication shop with saws, welding equipment, and grinders. A number of departments have taken advantage of the MakerWing’s resources for project classes, and starting this fall students can sign up for the new Maker Series classes, taught in the shop. However, the space has not seemed as attractive to some student groups who undertake engineering projects every year.

Tech Spark is the second project of the university’s 3-part maker ecosystem, as outlined in the strategic plan 2025. First came Scott Hall’s Nanofab lab in 2015, in which students can manufacture nano-scale materials, and next comes the 36,000 square-foot ANSYS Hall, set to open in the summer of 2020. The ANSYS building will house facilities fit for large-scale assemblies, as well as physical modelling software centers sponsored by the building’s namesake. When the Ecosystem is complete, one corner of campus will hold all the resources students need to make a product - from material fabrication, to component prototyping, to computer modelling and final assembly.

While the many benefits of this centralization effort are broadcast on university webpages and news features, there are those who worry about its consequences for some of Carnegie Mellon’s most celebrated traditions.

A half mile across campus, away from administrative offices and buried under the concrete and asphalt of the East Campus Garage, lies a labyrinth of rooms and storage cages that is home to over twenty-five student organizations. It is within these paint-splattered walls that booths, buggies, and electric race cars are born. The shops here are run by students, under certain safety protocols dictated by university Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S). Because EH&S can’t staff the student shops the way Tech Spark can, there is no formal safety policy from the university, and the shop relies on student shop managers to ensure that the heavy machinery housed in the basement rooms is safe to use. This leads to situations where jurisdiction over the safety of the machines is unclear, such as the sequence of events that resulted in the decommissioning of the CNC Mill

Heavy machinery such as the $10,000 computer numerical control (CNC) machine is housed in the Carnegie Mellon Racing shop. The doors to this massive metal box were malfunctioning over the summer, along with other issues, and repairs by a third-party technician were not enough to salvage the machine. A TechSpark staff member deemed the CNC mill to be in an unsatisfactory condition, and a lock was placed on its power switch, effectively decommissioning it

Pieter De Buck, the vice president of competitive analysis for CMR, explained the changes in the club’s operations now that their CNC machine is down. While the Tech Spark machines are newer and higher quality, they are public resources. That means sharing tools with other users and recalibrating the machine multiple times for one part. With complex components, it’s hard to finish in a reasonable amount of time. “This part could take over 30 hours in the CNC,” said De Buck, holding a football-sized piece of aluminum, “and we have to make four of them.”

The decommission is standard procedure, says Melanie Lucht, Associate Vice President and Chief Risk Officer for the university. “If something is found to be unsafe for operation, we work with student groups to figure out if we can get it working or if it just needs to be decommissioned,” she explained. Student groups agree to this policy when they use shop spaces.

What makes this instance different is that, with the new Maker Ecosystem, the machine may never get fixed: last month, there was a proposal to move student shop large power tool access to Tech Spark. The proposal, says Lucht, arose from a strategic plan to increase the “opportunity for additional resources, and to provide students with safer spaces with newer equipment, that have regular access to faculty and staff support.”

To some members of Carnegie Mellon’s oldest making community, however, this shift feels paternalistic. Along with CMR, buggy teams would be affected, and eventually booth as well. This prompted the sweepstakes community to organize and enter close conversations with EH&S, SLICE, and the College of Engineering about how to make student shops safer without switching to the Maker Ecosystem.

Diya Nuxoll, head mechanic of Fringe buggy, expressed concern that the operating hours of the MakerWing don’t fit with student groups’ schedules, but saw the reasoning behind closing certain machinery down during the current 11 p.m.-8 a.m. moratorium on student shop activity. “It's not realistic to limit all work during that window because teams go down to the shop to get their buggies for rolls around 4 a.m.,” she said, citing last-minute fixes that don’t require heavy power tools, “but it is totally reasonable to limit work with mills, lathes, drill presses, and bandsaws.”

Students have identified other problems, such as overcrowding. The MakerWing is busy, especially in the weeks leading up to carnival when class projects are due, which is the most crucial build period for buggy teams. Along with that come concerns over a lack of storage space and machines: most teams have upwards of three buggies in the shop at any given time, and there is already limited storage in the Maker Ecosystem.

In a brainstorming document, some students pointed out that a lack of equipment could create unfair advantages for certain teams: “To remove the capabilities to have our own machines would inhibit our competitive ability and enhance the competitive advantage of teams who outsource parts and have donated money for such parts.”

Some changes are less technical. Since its inception, buggy has been an activity that allows students from all educational paths to take part in a unique engineering project. To gain access to the Tech Spark machine shops, students would have to take the CIT-preference Maker Series classes. Andre Gutierrez, a mechanic for Apex buggy, explained the issue: “For certain students in the humanities, fine arts, and even drama departments, it’s difficult to accommodate the Maker Series classes. Students on my team take great pride on manufacturing parts in our shop that end up on the buggy.”

Though vague with details, Ms. Lucht made it clear that EH&S is working with student groups. “We’re looking at space, equipment, and staffing, and making sure to engage student groups as we do that,” she said, giving a nod to the tough spot her role places her in. From a safety standpoint, it’s hard to know what’s going on day-to-day in the student shops, and the 2011 death of a Yale student using a lathe in a university shop after hours has put greater pressure on preemptive measures.

To some students, however, this whole process feels more political than anything else. “The College of Engineering wants to please its donors for the ANSYS building,” said one buggy mechanic, “and wants to be able to say that we have one beautiful machine shop that everyone on campus uses.”

There is currently no deadline for the switch, or a guarantee that it will occur at all. Conversations are ongoing between students the various university stakeholders, leaving the future in limbo. In the CMR shop, a space that has become home to many who participate, life goes on as normal. Beneath trophies dating back to 1993 and framed T-shirts hung haphazardly on the walls, student mechanics tend quietly to their parts, stepping around the locked CNC machine whose fate will be decided once the talks are done.