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In Place with Bob Patchin

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If a researcher can dream it, Bob Patchin and John Fellenstein can make it. They’re the full-time staff of the physics and astronomy department’s machine shop in Stevenson Center. Patchin and shop supervisor Fellenstein design and craft tools, instruments, devices and just about anything faculty and graduate students need for their research or teaching. The facility serves departments in the College of Arts and Science, as well as the School of Engineering.

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Every bit of space in the 3,000-square-foot machine shop gets used. Equipment includes four lathes, five mills (including two modern CNC machines), four drill presses, two surface grinders, five saws and six vacuums. The shop also has woodworking facilities, complete with table saw, jointer and panel saw. The wood shop made nonmagnetic items for John Wikswo, Gordon A. Cain University Professor and A.B. Learned Professor of Living Physics, to use for his SQUID magnetometer research.
Patchin says he can make just about anything on this Italian-made milling machine (circa 1950s). He’s used it to craft tiny valves to go inside robotic arms for use by disabled veterans, and he used it to machine welded flanges onto pipes four inches across and 16 to 18 feet long.
A tool and die maker, Patchin figures out how to build things others envision, either from scratch or by modifying existing items. The shop makes one-of-a-kind pieces, prototypes and equipment used in labs and demonstration classes. Patchin says he particularly enjoys “demo work,” creating or adapting the equipment used to demonstrate physics principles to classes. On his bench currently are components that professors will use to build a light bulb demo.
A library of cutters provides the right shape, tool and hardness to cut almost anything, including materials for an engineering professor’s research with diamonds.
This nearly 100-year-old universal shaping saw is nicknamed Old Betsy. “It’ll cut off large stainless-steel pieces very accurately, which is a tough job because the material is very hard, and that saves machining time later on,” Patchin says. “It’ll cut very closely, even as ancient as it is.”
A WWII ordnance plant veteran, this lathe still puts piles of chips on the floor. Patchin modified the heavy machine to incorporate a programmable digital readout system.
The shop’s previous supervisor had a keen eye for surplus equipment. Despite its scruffy appearance, this U.S. Navy surplus vacuum proved its worth when the shop worked on a project for Professor Victoria Green. They cut G-10 composite material, which has slivering and dust qualities somewhat like fiberglass, and they ran the vacuum constantly for nine months to clean up scraps. “It just sat there and gobbled it down, we’d empty it, and put it on every day, it was just great for that,” he says.
The most unusual device he was ever asked to build, Patchin says, was a lizard track. A post-doctoral researcher in biological sciences wanted to keep his Anolis lizards healthy, so they constructed a running track. It used an electric drill to vary the speed. A close runner-up was crafting a worm-rooping stick for Ken Catania, associate professor of biological sciences, who was studying the phenomenon of worm grunting.

Watch: Want to know what the worm rooping stick was for? Associate Professor Ken Catania discusses worm grunting on Assignment Earth

photo credit: John Russell

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