HANOVER, N.H., –Whether you’re a hobbyist at home or a researcher at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), not having one special piece to finish a project and that isn’t readily available is almost universal.
Unlike the home hobbyist who will likely need to order that unique part online, the engineers, researchers, and scientists at CRREL need only ask Chris Donnelly, a CRREL engineering technician and machine shop manager.
“The researcher will come to me with a general idea, or they hand me a part and say, ‘Can you make this fit?’,” said Donnelly. “So, I sit down, and I start figuring out how to put this system together and make it so it's usable.”
Donnelly has worked for CRREL for 27 years. He started as a technician in the ice engineering department, but was asked time and time again to assist in the machine shop. Over time, he learned every piece of equipment, often having to learn as he went along through trial and error. Now, he manages the shop, and nearly everything he makes is custom to the job. The parts can be printed on a 3D printer, carved out on a lathe or even cut out of thick steel on a hydro cutting machine.
“The machine shop is involved in so many projects here at CRREL,” said Donnelly. “A lot of the research and testing we carry out is accomplished with fixtures or components that we've made in this shop. Everything has to be custom; you can't buy this stuff off the shelf.”
Donnelly says there may be an off-the-shelf product that is similar, but the expected application for that part is different at CRREL than its anticipated use. Because of the nature of the work at CRREL — dealing with extreme cold temperatures in CRREL’s cold room complex or frost effects research facility — many off-the-shelf items simply are not engineered to survive in these extreme environments.
“It's super important that we continue to have the kind of capability here that allows us to make these things for the researchers so they can do their work,” said Donnelly. “We have so much material and nice equipment to use.”
Donnelly never had access to this type of equipment when he was growing up. He says he never really did any work of this nature at all except for a lathe his dad had in the garage. However, after working in the machine shop for 20 years and honing his craft, he really enjoys the process of watching something go from a drawing to being out in the field.
“Just getting to make these things for people and seeing them actually come to life — from an idea or from a sketch — and function correctly and actually produce the results that people are looking for, that's quite a thrill,” said Donnelly.
While Donnelly didn’t grow up working in a shop with lathes, saws and drill presses, he says working with his hands and making things is his passion in life.
“This is what I do. I make things,” said Donnelly. “I'm the fix it guy at home, too. So, yeah, this is what I really enjoy.”