Precision Engineering and Custom CNC Machining Thoughts

Custom CNC machining beyond university machine shops

Time:2017-01-10

It may surprise you to know that university machine shops don’t just cater to students and other departments within the university — many now offer their expertise and precision design services to external clients too.

This is of particular interest to entrepreneurs on a limited budget who wish to develop product prototypes at a low cost, without having to meet the high minimum order requirements of large manufacturing factories. Since university machine shops isn’t a widely advertised service, a lot of business entrepreneurs aren’t aware of this local resource unless they stumble across it accidentally or hear about them from friends and family.


University Shops—How It All Works

The work carried out in a university shop is normally done by students for their own mechanical engineering projects or other scientific lab experiments. Under the direct supervision of the shop instructor, students get to experience different machining techniques and get really hands-on.  

The shops typically fall under the Physics or Engineering department.  Instructors can vary from graduate students to experienced machinists who have been part of the faculty for a long time.  Together, instructors and students can work together to learn how tooling, cutting speed, and different materials affect final parts production.  The standard of production tends to be high, producing fully operational parts to use in a physics or engineering project.

Production may take a few weeks to complete though, because the university shop usually do not operate the same number of hours or multiple shifts as a commercial business might.  Nonetheless, shop rates are reasonable rates and locally competitive.  

As these machine shops are learning facilities under a larger academic institution, machining expertise may cover a surprisingly wide range of services. However, because profitability and large scale machining isn’t the main focus, university machine shops will concentrate on designs at the prototype stage.  Their first priority are faculty and students, and then, outside job requests.

Universities with a wide-ranging engineering department such as Western University and UC San Diego offer general manufacturing services. On the other hand, some universities specialize in specific engineering areas, such as the Physics Machine Shop at Stanford University, which produces scientific and laboratory-focused equipment.

 

General Machining Services Provided

University machine shops offer a wide range of services that sometimes cover the entire manufacturing process from the initial design to the completed product. Many offer a consultancy service where skilled technicians help students and researchers to develop their ideas into robust designs. In additon to the machining class, students will have taken some kind of Computer-Assisted Drawing (CAD) software to generate mechanical drawings of the prototype and virtually test the concepts. These drawings may then be used to further code machining equipment or serve as a blueprint if the shop emphasizes manual subtractive processes over CNC machining.

Here is a sample of services you will find on campus machine shops:

A wide range of manufacturing services are provided by university shops including:

- Machining
- Conventional and specialist milling
- Sheet metal fabrication
- Welding
- Heat treating
- Brazing
- Soldering
- Engraving

And the materials used include:

- Aluminum

- Steel

- Stainless steel

- Plastics

- Wood

Most university shops also offer an affordable repair service where broken equipment and instruments will be fixed on site. This is done by welding, soldering, or re-machining as necessary.

As well as design consultancy and prototype manufacturing services, some universities also provide a testing service and will write a report explaining the product's functionality and use to potential investors. This is enormously helpful to entrepreneurs, for example, as it saves them the hassle and expense of employing technical copywriters at a later date. Some facilities even assist with the launch of the product, offering the services of their business and marketing students to help. This is an extremely useful resource for product developers with limited business experience.


Machine Shop Equipment

University machine shops tend to be stocked with the most up-to-date technology and equipment, which is maintained to a high operational standard. Machining facilities might include equipment such as:


- Milling machines
- Water jet machines
- Laser cutters
- Grinders
- Lathes
- 3D printers
- Welders
- Plasma cutters
- Soldering equipment
- Sheet metal press
- Rollers
- Drills
- Inspection equipment
- CAD software
- Miscellaneous saw, sanders, and routers


University Technician Rates

University shops offer very reasonable production prices all things considered, making them an attractive option not just for students and faculty, but also for entrepreneurs in the early stages of business development. In general their rates cover basic costs, and any small profit made will go back into servicing the equipment or funding the department in other ways.

University machining rates will range from $50-$90 per hour, depending on the University. Material costs are extra.   Most university campuses have metal and wood supply shops or will refer you to a local store to purchase.  They are happy for clients to supply their own materials, since the university isn't really in the business of selling materials for a profit.

All-in-all, utilizing a local university shop is an easy, walk in, next door option. However, sometimes you might find that these rates will be too high. Even at the lower rate of $50 per hour, you might feel that your project is completely out of reach. Or worse still, you may be placed toward the bottom of a long list of projects a busy University needs to get through.

What can you do if you are in a rush but need to meet a looming deadline?

Aprototype can provide precision machining support for university and lab prototyping projects.  Our tooling range and labor costs might provide an easy alternative.  We offer free consultations and fast turnaround to ensure you won't fall behind schedule.

 

Learn more about prototyping and innovation.  Read our next post.

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