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Design and Fabrication Services

EOL group builds devices with global impact

June 27, 2014 | It's a busy time of year for NCAR's Earth Observing Laboratory. With several field campaigns on the schedule, Staff News visited recently with Design & Fabrication Services to learn more about what this EOL team does and their role in the campaigns.

DFS comprises three service areas: Mechanical Design, Fabrication, and Logistics . When we visited, the department was busy designing and fabricating a multitude of instrument panels, racks, air inlets, dropsondes, and various parts and components that were shipped by plane to New Zealand for the DEEPWAVE project on gravity waves. The FRAPPÉ campaign will hunt for sources of ozone on Colorado's Front Range in July and August, so the equipment being designed and built for this project will be delivered to EOL’s Research Aviation Facility at the Broomfield airport. 

Jim Ranson and Karl Schwenz
Jim Ranson and Karl Schwenz. (Photos by Rebecca Swisher.)

Jim Ranson, who leads the facility, came to NCAR from Lockheed Martin Coherent Technologies three years ago. His background includes working with lidars (laser-based radars) and many other types of instruments for both airborne and ground-based platforms. Karl Schwenz, who has been with NCAR for 16 years, started out providing fabrication services, went on to do engineering design, and is now shop supervisor. 

From concept to campaign

Projects come to DFS when our scientists, other staffers, or university colleagues determine the need for a new instrument, measuring device, component, instrument panel, instrument rack, or other specialized equipment.

They typically bring a sketch of their concepts and ideas to Cynthia Bradley or John Herwig in Engineering Design, who work up the concepts and then use a computer-aided design (CAD) system to create engineering models or drawings that can be viewed on screen or on paper.

The Fabrication group takes the final printed design and CAD model and creates the item by machining, welding, brazing, sheet metal forming, soldering, or other techniques. The fabrication shop uses a multitude of machines, lathes, brakes, rollers, shears, and even a 3D printer to create the finished products.

Items produced by DFS range from small parts for a dropsonde to a large portable container that holds radar/lidar equipment and instrumentation during a field study. The Logistics group handles packing, shipping, and field set up across this broad size range. For the heavy equipment, they also maintain trucks, trailers, forklifts, and cranes to grapple the big components into place.

Many projects are one-of-a-kind. For Karl, the most unique was "a tram that runs on a track to collect air samples in a forest." The tram runs at 3 meters per second in a 200-meter loop. "It’s sort of like a miniature remote-controlled roller coaster.”

Jim Ranson appreciates the remarkable reach of the team's work. “It's incredible to think that the equipment and parts we’ve developed here in DFS have traveled to all continents," he says. "We have created and fabricated things that are used underground, on the Earth’s surface, in the air, and in space.”

3D printing? Sure!

Soil sensor created by 3-D printer
This soil sensor was created by DFS's 3-D printer.

While 3D printing might seem like a relatively new technology for the rest of us, DFS has been using the technology for about six years.

The DFS device looks like a large desktop printer. Instead of toner, inside is a spool of string-like plastic material that deposits layers of plastic at points on a grid, according to the design specifications. Printed items can be final products or prototypes. Prototype items are measured and fitted to ensure proper size and functionality before being produced in metal or another more expensive material.

Nuts and bolts, and procurement, too

The DFS hardware supply room is stocked full of nuts, bolts, screws, fasteners, and the like. They also offer a procurement service to make purchases for projects.

DFS is a chargeback organization, so the work they do is paid for out of a project's budget. Anyone within the organization or the broader UCAR community can use their services. Start by contacting Jim Ranson.

View a slideshow of DFS staff and equipment (non-Chrome browsers recommended for best performance).

Tom Wissman, instrument maker
DFS instrument maker Tom Wissman.