Can we automate education?

A few years ago I gave a tour of labs to one of the executives at MasterCam and when we talked about the system we’ve developed at WPI to help our students learn to use CNC Machine tools to make the parts they’ve desigened he accused me (in a good way) of having “automated education.”. This article published by SME talks a little bit about that.

Putting Excited Novices in Charge Works for WPI

It will take longer than you expect to get your parts from that cranky old machinist

 Instant gratification

We are living in a society that provides us with instant gratification in so many ways that we have come to expect in in almost all of our interactions.  On top of that, if you, as the customer, know anything about machining processes, you might guess that the cut time for your part will only be 10 or 20 minutes, or even 1 or 2 minutes. Knowing that, it can be frustrating to hear that it will take a week or three to get your parts back.

Sure most machine shops could turn that part around in a few hours if they had the tooling and stock material on hand (which they probably do.) They could do it if all they were doing that day was sitting around waiting for you to walk in. 

Why does it take 3 weeks?

How long it takes to make your parts depends on number of factors that you probably haven’t considered to this point. Below is just a short list of things that might impact the time it takes to make your part(s):

  • the quality of your design,
  • the number of parts in the queue ahead of yours,
  • the number of parts  you need,
  •  whether or not the stock material on hand,
  • the quality of your design,
  • the complexity of your part(s) and the fixturing required to hold it (them,)
  • whether or not the tooling for your project is on hand, and, also,
  • the quality of your design.

The quality of your design

The quality of your design may be the most important factor in getting the parts you need when you need them.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve finished making a part for someone and then they tell me they need to change the design and I try hard to ask good questions to make sure I’m making the part they need rather than the part they asked for.

A quality design doesn’t need to have solid models whe FEA analysis, it doesn’t even need to have dimensioned and toleranced drawings that conform to ANSI or ISO standards, it simply needs to have enough information to convey the design intent to the manufacturer with no ambiguity.  If you do this any cranky old machinist can make you exactly what you ask for.

Depending on the complexity of what you are asking for with your design a sketch on the back of a bar napkin may be all that is needed, but I’ve found in most cases that I would like you to give me a dimensioned drawing with tolerances specified for all 2 dimensional parts and a drawing and a solid model for all 3 plus D parts.

This speeds up the process for creating the manufacturing plan for making your parts.  It speeds up the process for designing and creating any specialized fixtures your part(s) might need and it absolutely makes it easier to create any CNC programs required.

First in First Out (FIFO)

Most machine shops process orders on a first come first served basis, and they need to have a week or two of work scheduled in advance (to avoid going out of business…) This means when you show up at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon they might not be able to start working on your parts for 2 weeks!

How many do you need?

Do you need 1, 10, or 10,000 parts? It makes a difference. Do you need them all at once or on some schedule.  You need to give the machine shop as much information about this as you can at the beginning it will impact how they plan the production and the design of fixtures.


Young engineers in industry are commonly referred to as “Kids With CAD.” Because you can truly make that CAD software sing. With blends, fillets, flat bottomed holes, under cuts, deep grooves, flat bottomed tapped holes with threads to the bottom…  the list goes on and on , and hey, sometimes you need those features to meet your design requirements. The thing is some of the more complex the features on your part are, the more features on your part, the more sides of your part with features, the more complex the set up will be and the longer it will take to make the part.

Tooling and Materials

If the machine shop you go to doesn’t have the tools or materials on hand to make you parts then they will need to be ordered. That process can take as little as a day and as long as two or three weeks depending on what is needed.

But I need the parts right now!

<< Watch this space>>

When you need your parts definitely has an impact on how long it takes to make them but only if the decision makers want to do you a favor. Your job at this point is to make them want to help if they can.  Remember, if you need your parts As Soon As Possible, it is likely to be your fault, not the machinist’s. Remember that when you talk to them. It’s also good for you to know that ASAP can have any meaning between – all other work stops or is put on hold until your project is complete – and – we will work on your project as soon as we get to it.

My next post in this series will give you some tips and tricks for getting your parts quicker, when you really do need them ASAP.



The 5 things you need to know before you talk to that cranky old machinist

Anyone who runs a machine shop has had the experience of interacting with customers who don’t know what they need. At DBT, I’ve had a $200,000 purchase order that was based on the wrong drawing, and at WPI we see it almost everyday.

As an educator I realize that in most cases it isn’t the customers fault, It’s my fault because I haven’t done a good enough job teaching them.  These are slides for a presentation that I’ll be part of next week:

The presentation is for PhD students in Mechanical Engineering at WPI but I think the information has value for anyone who needs to get parts made. Over the next few days I’ll be posting my thoughts and ideas of these 5 important topics.

As of this writing the slides are still a work in progress. Please feel free to email or call if you have thoughts or ideas to help me help PhD students get the help they need from machine shops around the world.


Can we make learning videos instead of teaching videos?

I can’t say I’m part of the ME Generation, and with that said, or rather not said, I can say that when I want to know something, unless I’m standing next to someone I’m pretty sure knows the answer, the first thing I do is Google it.  Then I look for a video (preferred) or a web page that explains it to me.  I’m forty three years old, or as I like to call it thirty-thirteen years old.  My generation literally grew up with computers.  I remember the first PCs.  I remember the launch of Macintosh.  I was there when our rich college friends first got PCs with color monitors and the rest of us reminded them that green is a color too.

Now as an engineering professor at a world renowned university my colleges and I regularly lament the fact that our students don’t do the reading and unless we somehow make it required they are likely to skip class in droves. I can tell you emphatically that that it is not their fault!  If we as faculty cannot engage them we deserve to be talking to an empty room and we are doing them and extremely expensive disservice.

So how do we engage them?  I’ve tried things like:

  • in class quizzes,
  • pre-lecture quizzes based on the reading,
  • post-lecture where the answers were only covered in lecture, not in the reading…
None of those things have really seemed to work for and I think it’s for the same reason that although I read almost continuously in high school, on the bus to school, on the bus back from school sitting in bed at night, sitting in the back of the class room,  I don’t think I ever finished one of the books assigned by my English teachers.

What does seem to work is to interact with them, to have a conversation, to ask questions and pull the answers out of them, to give them ownership of he class and its direction and to act as a guide on a journey of learning.  This can be hard to do as you might imagine with a lecture hall full of introverted engineering students.  I’ve been known to resort to throwing candy to (at) students who participate in my ongoing conversation and I’ve made it a habit of showing at least one YouTube video or clip in each class.  It’s these videos that I think are both part of the solution to the problem of engagement and part of the problem itself.

I’ve been using video as a teaching tool for as long as I’ve been teaching, and when I tell my class that they have to watch “my teaching video” —  of me talking about something — if they want to know — what I want them to learn — about that something; it doesn’t matter if the video is any good, I have a captive audience.  This has lead me to “produce” a few good videos and a lot of less good, even bad, videos.

A bad video is much much worse than a bad lecture.  I know from experience that some students will be embarrassed to fall asleep or even zone out in class but will think nothing of falling asleep in front of YouTube or more likely the’ll click on a more interesting video.
A good video can be much better than a good lecture the students can refer back to it they can share it with others they can help spread that knowledge.  A good video is a learning video not a teaching video.

Look for our new learning videos in May