The BAE Research Shop is the custom fabrication place, where designs become real devices and concepts become field-ready — expertly, quickly and economically.
“We’ve built maybe thousands of different items over here. Two are seldom the same,” says David Buffaloe, instrument shop supervisor for the research shop in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering in N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
He’s talking about the vast range of products, the devices and designs that come out of the shop where he’s worked for 36 years.
“This shop is very beneficial to the university,” he says. “People bring their thoughts, designs, stuff they need for the labs, items they thought were irreparable. We can save them some money and get them going.”
The BAE Research Shop, located in N.C. State’s Weaver Labs, is a full-service 7,500-square-foot facility that provides machining, fabrication and assembly of functional items and prototype equipment for clientele in BAE, CALS and throughout the university. Products are requested by faculty members, staff and graduate students to aid them in their lab or field work and research. For everything from laboratory apparatuses to tobacco balers, the shop fabricates parts and prototypes from ferrous and non-ferrous metals, wood and all types of plastic materials.
While there are some other shops on campus, the BAE shop is unique for a number of reasons. First, size matters: Because the BAE Research Shop is one of the largest work areas on campus, with extra-large garage door entry, projects are not restricted by height and weight. Then there is the specialized equipment, including the Computer Numerical Control (CNC) vertical milling machine, used for complex 3-dimensional, 3-axis applications, and the multi-axis CNC wire Electrical Discharge Machine (EDM), the only one of its kind operating at N.C. State.
And finally there is the staff of highly skilled instrument makers who execute the extreme high-precision machine work that is regularly required. Buffaloe works with two fulltime staff members, Ken Coats and Steve Cameron, who are specialized in the fabrication manufacturing industry. Together they take the device concepts brought in to them and make them reality.
“We’ve had people come in and draw things on a paper towel and say, ‘This is what I want,’” Buffaloe says. “So we sit down with them and design it out and take it to the computer and generate a 3-D working drawing (via CAD/CAM/3-D software). From that we can generate a machine program that can be fed into our CNC milling machine, CNC lathe and/or our EDM machine.”
The EDM is used to cut intricate shapes in hard and soft metals and “will basically cut or burn anything that will conduct electricity,” says Cameron, who displays an item the shop fashioned on the EDM. It’s a tiny, propeller-shaped valve for a pulse-jet engine, with a material thickness less than the width of a hair.
The EDM uses an electrically charged wire, of .010 in. diameter, to make its cuts by electrically machining away conductive material. It can be used to make multiple angle cuts such as those found in gears and sprockets, or geometric shapes and curved lines, such as specialty surgical and medical tools, as well as parts and equipment used in the aerospace industry.
To illustrate the precision, Buffaloe holds up a V-notch weir made on the EDM. For this device, which is used in measuring water flow in water-control projects, the V-notch has to be a precise point made by the wire on the EDM. “It could not be precisely cut any other way,” says Buffaloe.
And ever mindful of cost efficiency, Buffaloe reveals that he was able to get this machine off state surplus from one of the community colleges for a fraction of its retail value.
In fact, the shop itself is “a valuable resource for saving money on lab research projects for the whole university,” he says. “For example, early summer we finished a simulated river flow device for the Biology Department for a post-doc from his sketches. We may do several hundred such projects a year.”
He opens file folders and offers some random examples of the shop’s work.
“Here’s a neat little project I did with Biomedical Engineering — a rod insert to align the spine of a scoliosis patient, a device to bend the rod to fit the spine curvature of the particular patient,” Buffaloe says.
“And here’s a shock boat for the Biology Department, for fish research: They shock the water and the fish come up; they can study and weigh the fish, before releasing them,” he explains. “We took the boat and outfitted it with outrigger booms and electrical tentacles — it looked like a spider. We had to manufacture the main body that held the tentacles, which were stainless steel cables that dangled into the water.”
Another memorable job was one Buffaloe’s staff did for another shop on campus, the College of Engineering’s Precision Engineering Shop, he says. “They wanted an airplane vacuum wing mold where their client could cast a wing in his lab.”
Essentially, he says, once the BAE shop team had created the mold for the wing, the client could lay fiberglass material and resin on the mold, which had holes through which a vacuum could pull the material into the mold shape. (Those of a certain generation can perhaps visualize this as a super-sized, sophisticated version of the 1960s Mattel Toys gadget called the Vac-U-Form.)
Creating that mold “required a 3-axis movement to get that curved shape,” says Buffaloe. “So it required use of our 3-axis CNC mill.”
Other devices they’ve delivered include an adjustable infant car seat frame for a BAE senior design student; a bone fracture jig (to hold a bone in place while being mended) and a prototype surgical abdominal retractor, both for the College of Veterinary Medicine; and a sweet potato vine snatcher, a biomass torrefaction unit and a charcoal grinder, all for the BAE Department’s Dr. Michael Boyette.
A recent project designed by Boyette and built in the research shop is a garden scooter. “The scooter is a collaborative four-year USDA grant project with N.C. A&T State University, East Carolina University and N.C. State to give farmers with disabilities a means of being more mobile in the field, garden or around the farm,” Buffaloe says. “Unique features include a sliding rear support frame, which can be adjusted for varying row widths. It’s totally self-propelled and runs on an electric motor in which the battery is solar-charged.”
According to Boyette, he and many colleagues, not only in BAE but throughout CALS, could not be nearly as productive without the continuing help of the BAE Research Shop. “Agricultural and biological engineering is more than anything the practical application of science to solve real problems. Despite a lot of planning, we often do not know from one day to the next what challenges will confront us,” Boyette says. “Consequently, we have had to remain nimble in our responses to the problems that come our way. More often than not this has required us to build something fast. The harvest season is short and comes only once a year.
“Having the great fabrication capability of BAE’s Research Shop, which includes skilled mechanics as well as the most modern machines, has often allowed us to go from concept to field ready in a matter of days.”
Dr. Timothy Appelboom, BAE research associate, also has worked extensively with the research shop as associate team member of the Soil and Water Management Group, working in the areas of watershed hydrology and water quality.
“We are very fortunate to have a fabrication shop affiliated with our department and College,” Appelboom says. “There are many projects where the equipment needed to implement, enhance or monitor a study just does not exist or needs some adaptation to fulfill the requirement of the study – or replacement parts are no longer available. There are also cases where a researcher just needs a lot of one item. The BAE Research Shop is more than capable of fulfilling any of these needs with experience in almost all materials (metal, wood, plastic, etc.).”
Appelboom notes that his experiences with the BAE Research Shop have been very positive.
“They have never let me down,” he says. “Even if I use my ‘Crayola’ graphics package, as they call it, to draw something up to have made, they seem to be able to interpret it and end up with what I wanted.”
He offers as example a project for which his group is designing a new water control structure. “The BAE Research Shop built a prototype for me based on the drawings I provided and discussed with them. They had to mill several of the parts because they were of a new design. The milled parts then had to be remilled because the manufacturers of the seals we were going to use had quite a bit of variability in their diameter. Without the BAE Research Shop, this would have been a nightmare to get done,” he says.
“With most research, it takes several iterations to get a design finalized. After testing something in the field we find small changes that need to be done to either make the design more efficient or durable. Having a research shop that can work on the original design to the modifications is invaluable to getting things completed to a final design.”
Appelboom says that the great value of the shop for CALS is that “anyone in the College can easily have items needed for research quickly and inexpensively made without a lot of wasted time looking for a shop that will: 1) be willing to make a single specialty item, 2) have an understanding of its use to know if what they are making will work or not and 3) not charge a fortune due to small specialty work needed. This leads to faster experiment setup and successful completion.
“Having a shop with this type of expertise is really essential to our department. Without their skill and understanding of what we are trying to do, a lot of what we do would either require a lot of time, effort and higher costs working with an outside machine shop, or just not be possible.”
A tour of the shop floor gives a glimpse of the diversity and precision of the work done here. There’s the radial drill, used for drilling holes in large parts; a recently acquired CNC lathe for turning cylindrical parts and which has capabilities for short production runs; the precision surface grinder that grinds metals perfectly flat for making molds from heat-treatable metals; and the CNC vertical milling machine, where the airplane wing molds were made. On this, the shop also can do short production runs of identical items, such as the custom O-ring railings – used for soil and water erosion control – that are currently in process.
In the midst of it all, a computer monitor displays a 3-D visualization of a newly designed custom tool — a gadget used to remove a sprinkler head without damaging the sprinkler — to be made via lathe and milling operations.
These processes have produced a bin full of plastic orange lab bottle caps modified with tubing holes. They’ve also enabled the slicing of a new type of stainless steel, developed by the College of Engineering, so hard it required the BAE shop’s EDM to cut it.
Buffaloe recalls that when he first began working at the shop “we were doing a lot of commodity-driven mechanization items, for blueberry, cotton, tobacco production, etc. However, these days, it seems that we’re going more environmental – soil and water, biofuels, biomass, that type of thing.”
Still, he believes that more campus staff could and should use the shop. “I often feel that people don’t know we’re over here,” he says.
But Appelboom, a satisfied customer, is doing his part to get the word out.
“I really appreciate our shop and want others to know of its importance to not only our department’s research, but others on campus as well, and the high quality work that they do,” he says. “When appropriate, I have them place their shop ‘Custom Fabrication by’ sticker on the item, such as on the new water control structure prototype that they worked on.
“I know they are proud of their work, and I definitely want people who see something that they have made to know who did the fabrication.”
— Terri Leith
Making use of the BAE Research Shop requires just a few basic steps, says Buffaloe. “Clients should request a consultation meeting with the shop supervisor to discuss the aspects of the project. If the client does not have a CAD-generated drawing, a sketch with detailed measurements will be needed,” he says. “The client may be advised as to any needed changes in design or material selection that may be needed to achieve the final end product during the meeting. If needed, we can transfer sketches to ProE CAD/CAM software that can be loaded into our CNC machines.”
To generate the work request, clients will need to provide a six-digit FAS account number and five-digit project ID number, the Project Leader or PI’s name, departmental bookkeeper’s name and the campus box or billing address. The client will be given an estimated time of when the shop should complete the project and it can be picked up.
“Work requests are completed on a first-come basis, unless extreme circumstances arise to warrant moving a job up,” he says. “If needed, a good-faith cost estimate can be prepared on the labor and material.
“The work order is then assigned to one of our instrument makers, who are craftsmen of their trade. Our end result and ultimate goal is a satisfied client and successful results of their efforts.”