When Stanford University opened in 1981, Mechanical Engineering had the second largest enrollment of any department on campus (36 students out of 376 total). One third of the course offerings in Mechanical Engineering were shop courses, one third were machine design courses, and the remainder were spread between drawing, materials, steam engineering, and pumping engineering. Of course, in those days, mechanical engineering was heavily about machines, and industries were focussed on cutting, joining, and casting—no making of silicon chips or use of 3d printers.
By 1904, Stanford had outstanding shops for students, occupying three entire buildings— the present Building 530 being the machine shop, 540 the wood shop, and 570 the foundry and forge. During the period from then to 1930 there were four shop instructors teaching these subjects, As time passed, the total time required in shop courses was reduced by the addition of general study requirements, but in 1930, the shop offered ten shop courses and the equipment was the envy of competing schools.
But a slow decline began in 1930 for a number of reasons. Engineering was becoming much more complicated, requiring courses in other topics and leaving less time for shop practice. And then during World War II the engineering profession realized the importance of “high” technology (radar, communication systems, nuclear weapons) and a much greater emphasis was put on science and mathematical analysis, with a corresponding reduction in design and shop courses. By the time I reached the campus as a graduate studentin 1958, the shop was staffed by only one and a half people and only used directly by one course and by individuals making projects for other courses. I was one, since I made the apparatus for my Ph.D. research there (a remote vehicle with a variable time lag in the control system – think of a human on earth driving a vehicle on the moon).
But a remarkable man named John Arnold had been brought to Stanford from MIT in 1957 to strengthen and update design, and he and two graduate students he brought with him, Peter Bulkeley and Bob Keller, were committed to retaining and upgrading the shops. By the time I joined the faculty in 1966, the shops had benefitted from some new machinery and more student participation, but were under attack because of the need for space for new experimental programs. A compromise was reached on this point, but the shops were still in a stressed state because of budget restraints, and the difficulty the shop supervisor had in dealing with not only the students, but also the political climate on campus during the late 1960’s and his failing health. John Arnold had died, Bob Keller had gone, and Peter Bulkeley was the director of the then named Design Division. Since I was a shop person and had managed a small model shop at JPL, and since I took over the manufacturing course and was teaching in the Product Design Program (both of which depended upon the shop), I became involved. Peter left Stanford in 1969, and I became Director of the Division, and even more involved.
The nature of the work being done in the shop had changed greatly over time, because rather than asking many of the to make the same parts from drawings, students were asked to design parts and then make them – in fact often to make entire products they had designed. The operation was becoming more complicated and I was all of a sudden up to my ears. I was simultaneously fighting the people trying to steal space from the shop, trying to get the shop budget increased, and argue the importance of shop work not only for allowing students to pick up some tacit knowledge about manufacturing, but to bring a bit of balance to a curriculum that seemed to me to have moved too far toward science and theory. I was also teaching my courses, advising lots of students, consulting, running a NASA summer program in system engineering, and doing administrative work, when a miracle happened.
A present photo of the miracle is to the left, and his name is Professor David Beach (he had more and darker hair in 1972). He was a student in the graduate product design program (a cooperative program between mechanical engineering and art), who loved the shop and was trying to figure out where to go after his graduation. He had been a teaching assistant in the manufacturing course, which I was then teaching, and was a superb teacher and a wonderful person. Our shop supervisor was about to to retire, so one day I asked Dave if he would like a full time job running the shop and to my great joy, after thinking it over a bit, he said yes.
The rest, as they say, is history, which I will relate in my next blog. I consider Dave an unsung educational hero, and I will sing of him and his program, the Product Realization Lab.
In the winter quarter, beginning after Christmas, Dave will be teaching the Stanford Course ME 314, Good Products Bad Products, and you will be hearing much about the course, which uses my book of the same name as text.