By Sydney Heimer
Find out how the TEAM Lab went from a massive flood to fully functional in the past two years.
On February 4th, 2020, a water main break occurred on Henry Mall. This water flowed into the underground steam tunnels that emptied to the lowest point on the Engineering Campus. That lowest point was the location of the Technical Education and Manufacturing (TEAM) Lab, an approximately 14,000-square-foot machine shop located in the basement of the Engineering Centers Building (ECB).
By the time emergency services stopped the flow of water, there were a full 18 inches of standing, steaming water covering the shop’s floor. “I can think of no worse environment for all the equipment down there than warm water and steam,” says Carly Benish, the manager of the Design + Innovation Labs in ECB. “Basically, everything got destroyed.”
As soon as the water flow was under control, the arduous task of clearing the mess, assessing the damages, and itemizing lost tools and equipment began. “Just the sheer number of things that got destroyed made it difficult,” Benish recalls. “The team had to itemize all of the drill bits, all of the calipers, all of the nuts and the bolts.” When looking at row upon row of shelves full of new tooling in the tool crib, it is easy to understand the enormity of the task at hand for the TEAM Lab staff.
Along with the thousands of small tools that flash rusted, there were dozens of large machines powered by low-sitting motors that were completely submerged. The TEAM Lab is equipped with drill presses, band saws, sanders, mills, lathes, and more. Some machines with higher-sitting motors were spared, but most were not so lucky. TEAM Lab professional staff thus began a year-and-a-half-long insurance process to assess the value of the equipment lost and find suitable replacements.
Fast forward a month, and it was March 2020. Students left for a “two-week” spring break that lasted much, much longer. “If the whole place has to flood, the month before a global pandemic that shuts everything down was not a terrible time for it,” Benish admits.
While students were off campus, socially distanced TEAM Lab staff worked between furloughs to put the shop back together. The goal was to find the minimum lab setup needed to support some students in fall 2020. Often, the first experience an engineering student will have with the TEAM Lab is obtaining their “red permit” that allows access to basic shop functionality. Students earn their red permit after learning basic material manipulation skills and after making a plastic test part. By fall 2020, TEAM Lab had cobbled together enough equipment to enable a small number of students to get their red permits that semester.
The “green permit” is a more advanced permit that allows students access to the mills and lathes after machining an aluminum test part. When a student arrives to make their green part, the shop staff hand over a big green box with the required tooling. The weight of the box alone is enough to show just how many tools are needed to machine a relatively simple part. Thus, it took more time to recover green permit access for students. “If a few things are missing, there is not really a substitute for those things,” Benish says. “Either you have the right sized drill bit, or you don’t.”
Slowly but surely, and with massive efforts from the TEAM Lab staff, the shop has regained functionality and greatly expanded its level of student access and services. In December 2021, the TEAM Lab held a grand reopening event after the insurance and cleaning process concluded. “It felt like a significant milestone and a reason to celebrate all the staff and their accomplishments,” Benish says. During the event, each new machine was marked with a red balloon.
The event was an undeniable success, with a number of attendees visiting the TEAM Lab for the very first time. “It was important to get the visibility for the lab that you wouldn’t get just walking by,” Benish says. “This is what we were going for – getting people excited about the secret in the basement of ECB.” In the next couple months, the TEAM Lab will continue their rebuilding efforts to get the shop back to 100% functionality, with its highly anticipated CNC, or computer numerical control, lab expected to debut in fall 2022.
Benish and the TEAM Lab’s vision for the next year is to build on the momentum generated by the reopening event and see more engineering students eager to use the shop for projects outside of classwork, including student organizations, student research, and personal projects. “I would like to see the students even more empowered,” Benish says. “I want the tools here to be part of the engineering language that we speak – another way of expressing ideas.”
To those students who may feel intimidated by the unfamiliar environment of the shop, Benish assures that she had never held a screwdriver before she stepped into a machine shop for the first time as an undergrad. “I know firsthand how transformative it can be to feel like you have some kind of understanding… and suddenly this foreign environment becomes a place where you feel like you have some control and power over making something,” Benish says.
Benish and the TEAM Lab staff are passionate about sharing their love for designing and machining with students. “Part of what got everyone through the flood and COVID here was that they knew there were going to be students that they’d get to work with again on the other side of that,” Benish recalls. The TEAM Lab strives to create an environment where students feel comfortable trying new things and asking questions. “The last thing we want is for someone to throw their hands up and say, ‘it can’t be done!’” Benish says. “Of course, it can. And we’ll help you.”