Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Caltech Instrument Shop Tour

A few weeks ago you may have read a couple of my blog posts about a road trip down to Pasadena. We were working on the Caltech campus doing an installation of a telescope enclosure on top of the isotope handling building. I took a weeks vacation to help my good friend Don out with the work and have some fun.

While we were there I took a couple of "Breaks" and did a little recon around the campus on my own. It was surprisingly open and recon-able. I did my usual thing of acting like I belonged where ever I happened to be. In one corridor I stopped to read some articles on a bulletin board and an article about one of the campus machine shops caught my eye. Next to eating a good shop tour is one of my favorite activities.

The project manager of the telescope project came out one morning to check out the progress we were making on the enclosure. I had nothing to lose so I asked if he could make an introduction and get us a tour of the instrument shop. He readily agreed this should be easy. His only question was which shop? Apparently there are at least seven machine shops on campus. I blurted out, "the biggest one".

While we were waiting for our introduction we took a walk to the student store to pick up some Caltech swag. I work at Berkeley Lab, so wearing a Caltech shirt to work is something about as inflammatory as wearing a Giants jersey to a Dodgers game but with scientists. On the way to the student store my finely tuned machine shop nose smelled cutting oil in the air. I peeked through an open door where and was greeted by the familiar smell of way lube and soluble oil. Nobody was around so I left with a mental note to come back and snoop it out.

On the last day we finally made the connection to the person that runs the instrument shop. Now all we had to do is find it. The shop I smelled when we were walking around campus belongs to the aeronautics department and was not the shop we had an invite to. We found that out by sticking our heads in the door and asking for our tour guide. It turns out the instrument shop is in the basement four floors down in the physics building.
   We went in and headed down the stairs. Two floors down we saw what looked like a shop entrance and poke our heads in. It turns out it was a researchers semi private play shop and not the one we were looking for. The nice scientist that spoke with us directed us to the very bottom of the building for the instrument shop.
Here is a shot of the entrance to the Lauritsen physics building. In all our walking around I was impressed by the architecture and the peacefulness of the courtyards and campus in general. Pools ponds and courtyards with old trees and nice ironwork all around.
We finally made it to the shop where we were supposed to meet our host. Merih Eken the shop supervisor greeted us and gave us a nice tour of his well equipped machine shop. The instrument shop has a good mix of manual and CNC equipment to service the varied needs of their customers. The one limitation seems to be their location. Actually it may not be a limitation at all. Because the shop is in the basement it limits the size of the equipment that can be moved from the ground floor. The freight elevator has a limited size and load capacity. This ultimately limits the equipment size and the size of the jobs they can do. Not necessarily a negative situation. Given a choice most machinist would love to work on Bridgeport and Hardinge sized machining jobs. So if you want to work on small parts on friendly sized machines put your shop in the attic or the basement.
Lots of tool grinders around. If its anything like our shop the grinders outnumber the operators almost two to one. In the olden days we had to grind all our own tool bits. I bet there is a drawer in this shop somewhere with two hundred pounds of high speed steel lathe toolbits.
I really like the two headed drill press. This is a pretty cool setup in a drill press. Many times drill press operations are at least two tools. If you have a setup like this you can drill and ream, or drill and tap with a quick easy to setup machine.
Check out the ropes on the power breakers. In our shop we have to maintain three feet in front of all of our electrical panels. If you have a few panels this translates into a bunch of square footage that is lost and unusable for real work. Having your breakers above the floor like this reclaims the panel clearance floor space.
Merih told us this lathe is reserved for students only. This is secret code for all the staff machinists hate this lathe so lets give it to the students to learn on.
I'm betting the students don't get to use this lathe much. If you cant do good work on a Hardinge HLV-H then you should think of something else you might want to do. They wont peel a quarter inch on a side in stainless but they will hit tenths all day long. If you have never threaded on a Hardinge then you have something to look forward to.
This is one of the larger CNC mills in the shop. Apparently they had to take the thing partway apart to get it in elevator. These Haas tool room mills have a nice open configuration that's easy on the back to load vises and parts.
Check out the cool little clamp rack in the background. I hate clamps thrown in a drawer and its a pain if you have to loosen each clamp to release it from its storage rack. This slick setup is a real grab and go arrangement.
One of the larger Columbian vises I have ever seen. Funny I didn't see any soft jaw covers for this one. That handle and how high the vise is could make a dentist rich.
I really have a soft spot for radial drills. This is a real nice Fosdick that's not too big and not too small. Unfortunately these don't see much work in the average shop anymore. Betcha there are some big drills in that cabinet next to the drill.
This area had a monorail hoist servicing it. Not sure how they use it. My guess is it was set up for some other shop configuration that is lost to time. About the only thing it could service at all is the Fosdick radial drill.
 For those of you that know this is a really nice surface grinder. Power feeds on all the axis and solid Okamoto accuracy. I got the feeling they don't do much grinding in this shop. Outsourcing professional grinding services is pretty easy so its not surprising to see this fine machine not used very often.
 This shot could be a student shop on any campus, in any town. I have a similar room in our building. The cross section of materials and shapes defies any organizational methods or tracking systems. I'd be willing to be they ten kinds of bronze and six or eight ceramic grades in amongst your pedestrian steel and aluminum alloys.
Almost all the CNC machines were humming when we toured. They program the machines with MasterCam and model with Solidworks.One thing I've noticed in southern California shops are KDK tool posts. In the San Francisco Bay area we see mostly Aloris tool posts. I don't know if its my imagination or there is something to my north south tool post observation.

Too bad I ran out of time. Nothing like being on vacation and finding yourself smack in the middle of people doing the things you like to do. I'm hoping the telescope enclosure needs some more work so I can continue exploring the shops on the Caltech campus.

A special thanks to Merih for talking time away from his work to show a couple of complete strangers around. If your ever up in the Bay area I will return the favor.

Thanks for looking.


  1. Sure enough, when I got my graziano 17 it came from socal with a kdk post and a few holders. It's a nice setup but I'm from Oakland so I switched it out. I kept it though and I might use it as a rear tool post or something.

  2. Hi Beez,

    How do you like your SAG? They are really nicely put together machines. Missed out by a hair on a SAG 12 recently.



    1. Oh, I love it! Its.rigid and accurate. A much better lathe than I am a machinist. It's a little low though, I'm over six feet tall, or once was :), got any ideas for risers?
      Thanks for the wonderful blog and videos!

  3. Hi Beez,

    Risers depend on how much you need to lift the machine. The best is to find some large diameter solid and drill and tap them to accept the stock lathe levelers. If the levelers are not threaded on the end then make a recess for the tip to fit into. For a 15 inch x 54 inch lathe I would use minimum four inch diameter material. The other option is heavy wall tube and caps.