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Waltham, MA
Extreme 3D Machining: Shark Attack

By TJ McCueFriday, August 8, 2014
3D Printing, CAD, Engineering

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Irritating a great white shark is a bad idea, but it can be survivable, if you have the right equipment. The autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) known as the REMUS 100 lets you stay safe, while taking on the hazards of being in the water for you. That’s how the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) team prefers to study sharks. In a recent project, they learned some interesting things about what sharks think about AUVs invading their space. You might be able to guess from the photo and video.

Tim Smith, a senior machinist at WHOI, took us on a tour today. And what a tour! As a diver and ocean guy, this was a dream spot for me to visit. Combine that with my focus on 3D printing and the new face of manufacturing and you have a kid in the proverbial candy shop. WHOI sits on one of the most beautiful spots of the Cape Cod area looking out to Martha’s Vineyard and Buzzard Bay.

Tim worked on the REMUS SharkCam machining the nose portion where the cameras are located. I asked him how he felt about seeing a device he had a hand in – getting chomped on by a great white. “That guy lost some teeth – we made the REMUS and it's tough.” More on the AUV and cam below.

The WHOI machine shop keeps the operation running at high speed – without this team of guys and gals who can fix and modify the equipment – your boats don’t keep floating. I know that there is an amazing team of scientists and professionals, and while I appreciate their enormous contribution to exploring and preserving our oceans, I also really value and want to call out the people who turn the wrenches, run the machines, and bend the metal. They are who this roadtrip is about.

From an Omax waterjet, to more traditional metal lathes (Hardinge), to one of Stratasys’ first industrial-strength 3D printers, we saw it all. I lost count of the CNC machines. There were at least two dozen machines on the third floor of a building. How stout can that structure be? Again, could not help but think of our friend Jeff Tiedeken from Monkey Likes Shiny and what he would and could do with this team of designers, thinkers, makers, and machinists.

There’s a mix of machinists, engineers, and scientists at WHOI and they remind one another of the importance of details, sometimes with a bit of humor. Take a look at the photo where the basic rules of a shop are explained: Things Engineers Should Know. Engineers, take no offense please – we all need these reminders! I didn’t hear buzzwords or terms like “cross trained” or other corporate phrases – but more of how individual craftsman tackle the problems and challenges, going from start to finish to get the job done. They 3D print various models and prototypes to figure out how they can machine the part out of metal -- like many others, because it is cheaper to prototype in plastic, time and money-wise. The REMUS SharkCam had several 3D printed parts on it -- from the nose to the propeller housing (again, that started as prototypes and then went into a metal machining process).

Tim took us through how he might work for weeks to take a design given to him by a scientist and get it to a finished state on a CNC machine. “Lots of people are using Autodesk Inventor here. It is such an amazing program, and so easy – easy enough that even a scientist who hasn’t used CAD software before can use it and create quickly. They can stretch and pull something into just the right finished design.” They hand it over to him and he makes it work in the CNC machines or on a more traditional lathe or mill, checking it for tolerances to ensure it will hold up to shark teeth and much more.

Tim, like many maker-types that I meet, loves his work. He’s changing the world one piece of Titanium (or plastic or whatever material hits his bench) at a time, to help explore and preserve our oceans. That’s a pretty cool job. But for the record, since Tim likes to occasionally boat to work instead of drive his land vehicle – he is not in the business of irritating sharks, automated robot or otherwise.

Additional Info:

The REMUS SharkCam is based on the REMUS-100 autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), equipped with video cameras and other tech that lets it find and track tagged marine animals. The vehicle is pre-programmed to home in on a signal from a transponder beacon attached to the animal at depths up to 100 meters (330 feet). REMUS stands for Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS, a compact, light-weight, AUV designed for operation in coastal environments.

Oh, and next week, check out the Discovery Channel program about the SharkCam work and what the WHOI team in Mexico discovered. The show is appropriately named Jaws Strikes Back (9:00 p.m. EDT).

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