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There’s no workspace like home

January 13, 2021

For the past six months, the gentle whir of 3D printers has been an ever-present hum coming from the front room of the Charles Village townhouse of seniors Christopher Shallal, Parker Treadway, and Mark Shifman. Day and night, the trio of engineering majors manufactures devices for both fun and play out of their newly built engineering workroom, converting their home into the laboratory of their dreams.

While taking classes remotely last spring, Shallal, a biomedical engineering major, started work with a JHU startup producing 3D printed face shields for frontline workers battling the spread of COVID-19. Because Hopkins’ 3D printing lab had shut down due to social distancing concerns, Shallal was able to move two of the 3D printers stored there to his home and set them up in his living room.

As the summer went on, and Shallal’s work grew, the setup expanded and soon took over the living room of the house. When his roommates, mechanical engineering majors Treadway and Shifman, returned, they realized it wasn’t sustainable to work in the same room where they relaxed and watched TV.

What they needed was a laboratory space dedicated to manufacturing.

Together, the trio did the unthinkable: They packed up their pingpong table, which previously held a place of honor in the entryway of their shared townhouse, and got to work converting the front room into an engineering space robust enough for even the most complex manufacturing task.

They snagged folding tables from Home Depot and a TV stand from the side of the road to create work spaces and places to hold their growing collection of 3D printers and engineering equipment.

They set up mini-cabinets for electronics components and a pegboard for tools, and built a frame for a personal white board that was going to be thrown out by facilities staff at the Wyman building until they claimed it for themselves.

Chris and Mark are working in the lame shift design studio in their living room.
Mechanical Engineering undergraduate Mark Shifman and BME undergraduate Chris Shallal work in the makeshift engineering lab they set up in their home near campus with their housemates during the shutdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. IMAGE CREDIT: WILL KIRK / JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY

As mechanical engineering majors, Shifman and Treadway utilized the space to complete their senior projects, where students are asked to design and deliver real products to sponsors. For Treadway, that involved developing medical devices for Hopkins clinicians, while Shifman works on a space probe for the Applied Physics Lab.

“[Building the workspace] definitely alleviated a lot of the stress and pain associated with not being on campus due to COVID-19,” Treadway said. “The Mech-E senior project is like the holy grail that you’re going for, and I know a lot of my colleagues weren’t as lucky. They’ve had to cobble together what they can to manufacture their products. I feel blessed to have this space.”

In addition to their senior projects, the three engineering majors have utilized the space for projects outside the classroom as well, including Shallal’s work with the face shield startup, contract work with the Department of Defense, and projects with the University of Minnesota. Much of the more expensive machinery came from their contracts with these programs.

Between the three engineers, the lab is active almost 24 hours a day. Shifman typically starts the day manufacturing pieces for the space probe, while Shallal prints off miniature versions of medical devices so that doctors can show patients how they work during consultations. Then late into the night, Treadway fires up motors in order to build a robot that will increase the speed and accuracy of current COVID-19 tests.

On top of their schoolwork and work with outside agencies, the lab space has also been used for home improvements. Throughout the semester, they’ve built spice racks, pot and pan holders, Christmas gifts, and even a prank or two.

“This might be petty, but my roommates are not the cleanest people, and they never replace the paper towel roll,” Treadway said. “So, I 3D printed a new paper towel holder that’s bolted onto the sink, so it gets in your way until you replace it.”

Since arriving at Hopkins, Treadway has believed in the importance of hands-on engineering experience and expertise. When he was young, he said his father’s workshop always felt like a forbidden playground, so as soon as he came to Hopkins he took a job in the machine shop. Soon, he found himself promoted to trainer at the Fast Forward makerspace, where he helped students learn the tools that would turn their designs into reality.

“Manufacturing is one of the cornerstones of engineering,” Treadway said. “If you don’t know what it takes to actually build something, you’re not going to do a good job designing it in the first place.”

As Hopkins lab spaces reopen this spring as part of the university’s return to campus plans, Shallal said he’s excited to start the process of downsizing their home lab and working from the makerspace and BME Design Studio again.

“It makes it easy to work, but it can also make it too easy to work,” Shallal said. “When you don’t have that division of work space and home space, you don’t know when to stop. I don’t have to leave the lab to sleep or eat because the lab’s in my house. I love what we’ve built, but I’m personally excited to be back inside a real lab again.

– Jacob deNobel

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