The tools for innovation from concept through creation

27 Apr2021

Pictured: Harish Gautam, Machine Shop Supervisor. Image credit: Paul Joseph/UBC.  

In the machine shop, Harish Gautam and colleagues work closely with scientists to design and create custom tools to support research on ultra-high vacuum and cryogenic equipment, as well as mechanical components and prototypes for new designs. It’s precise, highly technical work, and Gautam is proud of what he does and eager to invite people in to see what is possible in this space. While guests have not been allowed in the shop due to COVID-19 safety protocols, under ordinary circumstances, visitors would have taken a shop course through the Department of Physics & Astronomy, or a participated in a training session with Gautam.

The machine shop is a resource for researchers, students, and scientific staff at the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute (SBQMI) and the Advanced Materials and Process Engineering Laboratory (AMPEL). Gautam, Machine Shop Supervisor, is a mechanical applied science technologist and Red-Seal Machinist with a particular interest in teaching. In other research centres, a machine shop might be a shared facility serving a number of labs; at SBQMI, the machine shop is also a learning space, a place where students can come and train on the equipment.

In the back of the facility, there is a student shop where Gautam and colleagues teach students to use equipment such as the manual lathe and milling machines, along with various saws and sanders.

Students, scientific staff, and faculty can tell Gautam what they need, providing 2D or 3D drawings, or even hand-drawn sketches. The team in the machine shop creates a design from submitted material, and in consultation with the researcher, undertakes prototyping and manufacturing of everything from small metal parts to complex scientific instruments requiring a high degree of precision and expertise.

“The things that we are making in this shop are often for very specific experiments, and the parts don’t currently exist: we’re making things that you can’t buy,” said Gautam.

“We’re here to help create high-quality, custom pieces to support research, but we also teach Quantum Pathways and graduate students to design and develop their own tools,” said Gautam. In previous years, Gautam has hosted summer skills workshop participants, orientation and live demonstrations for Indigenous high school students, and trained individual SBQMI students, teaching them how to take their ideas through the entire process, from concept through to creation.

As restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have prevented a number of in-person group activities, Gautam has offered some virtual training, including summer skills workshops. Though Gautam wasn’t sure how the online workshops would go, interest was significant, and moving to a virtual platform meant that the team was able to host double the average number of participants in the summer of 2020.

“There are a lot of opportunities to develop a diverse skill-set at SBQMI, but one specific thing that really stands out for me is that we have the ability to learn quite a lot of machining skills,” said Alexandra Tully, a PhD student who has worked closely with Gautam.

“It’s amazing that you can just check in with your lab mates about what you might need for an experiment and trust that you have access to the tools and expertise to create what you need,” said Tully. “Working with Harish, I feel familiar with the entire process to the point where I now have experience designing and machining pieces.”

Gautam believes the best way to learn is through hands-on, practical experience, and while the industrial machinery in the shop can be intimidating, Gautam and colleagues work to acquaint users with the equipment, and supervise their work to ensure safety and success.

“I think it's incredible that we are given the opportunity and the support necessary to become proficient in both of those skills; my sense is this is pretty unusual for students in other centres,” Tully said.

“We’re very proud of the work that we do here, and the opportunities that we offer,” said Gautam. “With new equipment, including a newly installed water-jet cutter—a machine that uses a high-pressure jet of water to cut precise designs into materials such as stainless steel or Lucite—and two skilled machinists—including recent hire Qu Cheng—to support big projects including the Grand Challenges, this is an exciting time to be part of this facility. Please, come see us when you can!”

For more information about the machine shop, including what tools are available and how to access training opportunities, visit the AMPEL website.