Clemson’s Own Monster Garage
By Nancy Spitler
If you go to the website for Clemson’s Machining and Technical Services, you can read about the many capabilities of this department in the College of Engineering and Sciences. Seven bullet points list everything from drafting and machining to plastic fabrication and welding.
They might consider trimming that page down to just six words: We can make just about anything.
That’s what director of instructional and research support Phil Landreth ’84 will tell you, backed up by his staff of engineers, artisans and craftsmen who work in the basement of Freeman Hall, packed with high-powered equipment and projects. “It’s like walking into Monster Garage every morning,” Landreth says with a grin.
There are no chrome dashboards or classic interiors, but the challenges they meet each day and the solutions they create have life-changing implications.
Say hello to the four managers of the shop — Truman Nicholson, Jeff Holliday, Brad Poore and Charlie McDonald ’04. Get them talking about their many projects, and their faces light up as they begin to tick them off:
- Joist hangars and hurricane clips for the Wind Load Test Facility
- Heart valve bioreactor and part of an artificial knee for biomedical engineering
- A component of the buoys in the Intelligent RiverTM project
- Fullerene nanoparticle (carbon molecules used in pharmaceuticals, lubricants, coatings and composite materials) producers for chemistry, physics and COMSET (Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies)
- An etching press, larger than commercially available, for the art department
The list goes on and on—from turf cutter blade parts for Athletics to a machine to make miniature bales of cotton for material science and engineering and air handling shafts for Facilities Maintenance and Operations. They produce samples for undergraduate labs to use for stress testing. They’ve helped students develop easy-to-connect joints for the steel bridge competition. They’ve created a mechanism to dynamically compress artificial cartilage tissue as it is being grown. They even worked with emeritus professor Cecil Huey to replace the governor on a historic steam engine for the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico.
From drawings to reality
On the walls of the shop you’ll see pictures of years and years of formula cars designed, built and raced by Clemson students for the annual Society of Automotive Engineers competition. The silent partners in the projects are the guys in MTS.
“The students are building a prototype,” says Nicholson, “and we create different parts for them, like the rotors and the throttle body and the axles.” He picks up a differential that has been crafted out of a solid block of aluminum. “We usually do the differential.”
The competition is early May. Like other projects, these might start with a drawing on a napkin, but Landreth and the others pride themselves on the ability to work with students and faculty to figure out solutions, then make those solutions a reality.
“We meet with the students and talk about what they want and need,” says Nicholson. The back-and-forth conversation elicits a much better product than just dropping off an order and picking it up when it’s finished.
“I can count on one hand the failures we have had of not being able to give someone what they need,” says Landreth.
Where the rubber meets the road
Across campus in another little-known building are two guys spending their Friday morning working on Clemson’s SAE formula car for the competition that is less than three weeks away. The frame is welded together and sits on a large worktable. The whiteboard on the door lists most of the tasks that need to be finished, with a countdown of days to go before competition (19 at this time).
“There are more things we need to do, but I’m afraid if I put everything up there, it will overwhelm some of the team,” says Kevin Carlson, one of the team leaders. He and team member TJ Theodore will be here most of the weekend.
The SAE formula team is made up of students from mechanical engineering, industrial engineering and business who average 10-15 hours a week beginning in the summer. No course credit, no compensation. The seniors on the team will even have to choose between attending the competition or walking at graduation. Some of the team members (including the other team leader, Perry Ellwood) are working co-op jobs and come back to Clemson to spend their weekends on the car. Two alumni team members return once or twice a week to help as well.
The team relies heavily on the guys from MTS, who have produced 14 parts for this year’s car.
“We have 125 hours of MTS time,” says Carlson. “We completely design the car in SolidWorks (software application) and then go to MTS with drawings. They do the steering gears, the wheel hubs, the trigger wheels, the throttle body.” The team mills some parts themselves by hand. And they wrangle others, both donated and sold, from outside vendors.
Working with MTS not only saves the team money, but it also provides them with technical expertise. “It saves us around $6,000 to have their help,” says Carlson. “Hour-wise, it saves us over 300 hours of machining if we had to do it ourselves. They’re a huge help, both with the parts and giving us knowledge on how to machine things better or more efficiently.”
An engine for the rest of campus
The crew in MTS are probably best known for their work with the SAE formula car, but there’s not a college or department on campus that has not been affected by their work. Bioengineer Karen Burg discovered their capabilities while she was still a graduate student. Now a prolific researcher and holder of an endowed chair in bioengineering, she shares some of the credit with them for Clemson research productivity.
“I’ve worked with the Machining & Technical Services staff since I was a graduate student,” she says, “and I’m grateful for all their assistance on numerous projects. They are enthusiastic and helpful, and they have significantly increased our ability to conduct cutting-edge research.”
The MTS crew has worked with Burg to create an instrumented container used for growing tissue for breast cancer research. Caught in a more casual moment, Burg remarks, “In short, Phil [Landreth] and the Machining & Technical Services personnel ROCK.”
The rest of the Clemson crew agrees.