What You Won’t Find In The USC Machine Shop
The drill bit dips into a two-inch thick slab of stainless steel like a straw into a milkshake. No resistance. Sixty seconds later, the drill bit lifts, pivots and lowers again. The seven-foot-tall, gun-metal gray drilling machine, called a mill, repeats the process 850 times with computer-directed precision.
Metal, plastic and wood bend to machinist Gary Kuepper’s will thanks to the shop’s dozens of mills, lathes, ban saws, electrical welders and sand blasters, which can cost in the vicinity of $40,000 each. The objects he creates end up in campus laboratories and at experimental sites on the deepest reaches of the ocean floors.
“What I like about working in a machine shop is when I break something at home, 99.9 percent of the time, I can fix it,” says Kuepper.
He says he can make anything — as long as it isn’t glass.
Glass is strange stuff: it’s an amorphous solid material that lacks a crystalline structure. Glass’ disorderly arrangement of atoms and molecules is typical of liquids, yet glass is solid enough to resist the drill bit of a $40,000 machine.
Infamously brittle, glass doesn’t handle stress well, as anyone who has dropped a dish can attest. Under stress, crystalline structures such as those in metal bend without breaking, because planes of atoms slip past each other. Amorphous glass simply cracks at any point where there’s a surface flaw.
Here’s where the plot thickens, or least becomes more viscous. When heated, glass exhibits an aptly named glass transition — a gradual change from a hard state into a rubbery, molten state. Unlike thermodynamic phase transitions — such as water freezing into ice — the glass transition doesn’t happen all of a sudden, nor does it occur at a specific, consistent temperature. What this means in practical terms is that glass thwarts machinists’ efforts to shape it.
Silicate glass, the common type used to make windows and drinking glasses, owes much of its hardness to its key ingredient, silicon dioxide, which occurs in nature in the form of quartz and sand. Silicon and oxygen atoms form strong covalent bonds, meaning they share electrons. These nearly unbreakable electrochemical ties easily could have inspired the saying “hard as a rock.” Covalently-bonded minerals — which include diamonds — tend to be some of the hardest substances around.
In the cavernous, concrete expanse of the basement-level shop, the drill bit throws off tiny, silvery shavings, and the quiet, high-pitched whir of metal on metal sounds almost sweet against the soft, orchestral hum of machinery. The air contains a scent of metal, acetone and motor oil — an aroma fondly nicknamed “machine shop smell” by the people here.
There’s a lot that’s comforting about working in the land of metal. No shattering. No shards. No hard, brittle glass.
And if the machinists break a wine glass, they can always make a stainless steel goblet to replace it. It won’t be as hard as Waterford, but it will work pretty much the same way.
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