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11/29/2001 08:00:00

Machinist provides undergrads withquality time in the Caltech shop

Machinist John Van Deusen looks on approvingly as two Caltech undergraduates prepare to see how well their new robot climbs a curved wall.

The robot performs its task admirably—not necessarily a foregone conclusion in the Caltech machine shop, where dysfunctional robots have been known to come into creation. Van Deusen, ever the diplomat, passes by without commenting one way or the other.

"In ME 72 we bite our tongues a lot," Van Deusen says later. The robot the two undergrads have built is pretty much a set of felt-lined caterpillar treads linked by a single aluminum bar.

Controlled by radio and powered by small electric motors, the device exists for the purpose of racing up an ever-steepening wall, retrieving as many hockey pucks resting on the wall as possible, and, ideally, winning the coveted first-place award in the famed Mechanical Engineering 72 contest.

Van Deusen's purpose, on the other hand, is to show the students how to use the machines, give them advice on how best to achieve what they are trying to achieve, and makes sure they use the high-powered equipment of the machine shop safely.

Van Deusen is the guy who consults with the students as they build their machines for the ME 72 competition each December—a public contest that attracts virtually the entire Caltech campus and usually a fair number of Los Angeles and national media outlets. As manager of the Caltech machine shop, he provides instruction on how to do the fixing and making that will be very much a part of every student's life, to one degree or another. After all, mechanical engineering is the process of creating a new thing to solve an often poorly defined and open-ended problem—be it exploration of a new world or mechanical delivery of a new drug.

Therefore, even at a highly analytical school like Caltech, fledgling mechanical engineers find that they are most likely to spend their careers at the cutting edge if they are familiar with . . . well, the actual cutting edge. And that's where Van Deusen's expertise is especially valuable, says Caltech mechanical engineering professor Erik Antonsson.

"Being a mechanical engineer without knowing your way around a machine shop would be like being an MD without ever having been inside a clinic," says Antonsson, originator and guru of the ME 72 contest. "It really helps the students to do some actual machining, and John is really good at helping them build some amazing skills."

The whole point of the design contest, according to Antonsson, is to nurture the ability of future engineers to design the best possible machine to accomplish an arbitrary task. Each year Antonsson comes up with a contest in which two-person teams build a machine to perform an offbeat task such as gathering Ping-Pong balls, move disks across a barrier—or in the case of this year's contest, collecting hockey pucks off a wall. If the students have come up with a viable design—and if they've learned their machining skills well from Van Deusen—they may rack up sufficient points to win the annual public contest, which for years has been one of the most celebrated events of the academic year.

Though it would seem that a design from one year might prove to be an all-around winner in successive years, Antonsson has deviously assured that such is unlikely to happen. Lower-division students can indeed learn a lot by watching the predominantly senior ME 72 class at work, but they can only learn generic rules of the game. The following year's task will assuredly be so different in design that everyone in class will be forced to go back to the drawing board, so to speak.

The only parameters that seem to be repeated year to year is Antonsson's practice of providing each team with a bag of aluminum sheets and bars, a few cogs, axles, some clear acrylic material, a few small electric motors, wires, and so on—a bag of "junk," as he calls it—and the injunction to go to Van Deusen's subbasement shop and get busy with the mills and lathes. Thus, Van Deusen is essentially one of the instructors for the ME 72.

"In ME 72, we tell them only how to make the parts. We try not to influence them on design questions, but on manufacturing questions, we say, 'Hey, come to us.'"

When asked if he often knows who will likely win the annual contest, Van Deusen reluctantly admits he usually has a pretty good idea. Because of his long experience as a machinist, he can usually spot a good design as well as a bad one.

Van Deusen's personal experience with novel designs is grounded in the aerospace industry. The most unique thing he ever personally built, he says, is the umbilical for the Space Shuttle while he was employed by Hansen Engineering in Harbor City.

The umbilical, he explains, is the last link to break away when a shuttle launches. The device is a solid piece of aluminum four feet wide and five feet long, with a thickness of 13 inches and an intricate design. The umbilical required half a year to construct, and that included writing programs for the early-generation numerically controlled mill.

"We all held our breaths the first time a shuttle went off," Van Deusen says. "We had been saying that if we saw a bunch of wires dragging along behind the shuttle, we wouldn't go back to work the next day."

When the Southern California aerospace economy went soft in the early 1990s, Van Deusen found a job as head of the machine shop at Caltech, and he's been there ever since. Though he cut his college education short after a couple of years of community college, he's now back at Cal State Long Beach and working on a bachelor's degree in vocational education.

Though he originally thought he wanted to be a pharmacist, Van Deusen says he thoroughly enjoys working in machine shops and has no regrets about his choice of careers.

"I eventually asked myself if I wanted to go to USC for six years and be a night pharmacist at Sav-on," he says. "I decided I liked the mechanical aspect of being a machinist, and I still do."

As for his Caltech job, Van Deusen says he especially appreciates the steep learning curve of the typical Caltech undergraduate. Virtually all of them are quick studies in the shop as well as in class, he says.

"For these students, learning fabrication skills is not hard at all. And as far as learning the theory, it's nothing for them," he says. "But they're not precision machinists, and to manufacture things, you have to learn how to do things properly, or else axles won't match up, or edges won't meet."

Antonsson says Van Deusen's knack with the students is a key to the success of the annual ME 72 endeavor. "He's very thoughtful, and really tuned to the students.

"Every year about this time he puts up a Christmas tree and encourages students to decorate it with all kinds of chips and things that come off their machines while machining," Antonsson says.

"That goes to show how he really makes the whole shop environment a welcoming home."

Contact: Robert Tindol (626) 395-3631