By Stephen Filmanowicz
Using the latest drafting software, it's not unusual for Marquette engineering students to design complex devices in 3-D, operate them virtually and measure the forces they generate — all before a single screw is turned or bolt tightened. Yet even as the College of Engineering moves this summer into a new home that is every inch a showplace of modern technology, the college clearly wouldn't be complete without two men whose expertise runs in a more time-honored and hands-on direction.
Ray Hamilton and Dave Gibas are the know-how behind the college's machine shop and rapid prototyping laboratory, where course assignments and faculty research projects take shape in aluminum, brass, plastic and steel.
Each has decades of experience on the shop floors of companies such as GM's Delphi unit, Applied Power and Boeing. If you want to find the two people at Marquette least likely to miss a beat in explaining how a mill differs from a lathe, Ray and Dave are your guys. (For those following along, a mill involves a spinning cutting tool and a stationary work piece, while on a lathe it's the work piece that does the spinning as the tool remains stationary.)
Before students can set foot in the shop, they encounter Hamilton's bearded, longshoreman-esque visage or Gibas' more avuncular presence. Through mandatory "basic training" sessions, the pair enforce a respect for equipment that can be dangerous if not operated safely. The point is reinforced by their supervisor Tom Silman, a former Navy nuclear machinist mate, Marquette-trained mechanical engineer and another helpful presence in the shop and neighboring areas such as the soldering and welding stations, assembly tables and electrical engineering lab.
Students may come to the college as high school valedictorians or possessors of astoundingly high scores on their Xboxes and Playstations, but they are often less accomplished in the physical realm. "We get kids who don't know how to swing a hammer or use pliers and screwdrivers," says Hamilton with a wry chuckle. "They may think these machines can do things they can't. So working with us helps them have a clearer understanding of what it takes to get something built and what it's like to work with people like us."
That education includes exposure to basic shop practices such as filling out work orders and creating the drafting prints that machine operators use to make a part. "We're getting them acclimated to the demands of the real world," explains Gibas. "After you graduate and get a job, you have to work with tradespeople. You're an engineer. If you can't draw and you can't describe what you need, you're not going to get very far."
The shop veterans freely share what years of trial and error have taught them about materials — when do you use aluminum versus brass or steel? — and give students an introduction to shop jargon (so you need that quarter-twenty tap, huh?)
"Ray and I like to be on the floor," Gibas says. "A lot of the time, it's not seeing what's happening that's important. It's hearing it. If someone is running a drill too fast, too slow or without enough fluids, or if they don't have their work piece clamped down tightly enough, you know it from the sound."
A generally friendly rivalry has been known to simmer between machinists and engineers over the comparative value of book learning and shop knowledge, and Hamilton acknowledges that he occasionally needs to prove that "yes, we do know what we're talking about." But there's no doubt that the duo have some enthusiastic fans among Marquette faculty and students.
"Engineering is an application-based field," says Dr. Philip Voglewede, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, "Having people that have done it day in and day out, that's crucial. Those are the people that you want to be associated with — and that you want students to be associated with."