My name is Tim Mallard. I recently stumbled onto your podcast on iTunes and I absolutely love it! It’s really great to hear from people from all different industries and backgrounds who are committed to spreading knowledge and debunking the dark, dirty vision of manufacturing that everyone outside the trade seems to share. I thought I would share my story with you. It’s pretty unconventional these days.
In elementary school, my grades were terrible. I was diagnosed with a learning disability and labeled as a kid who “just has to make it through.” Because the public school system had already written me off by the sixth grade, I was sent to Catholic school.
Luckily for me, a lot of people in my life did not share the opinion of my public school teachers. My dad was an electrical engineer. It was obvious to him and others that I was passionate about math, science, and designing projects. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by some really smart adults who taught me a very important lesson: nothing is a secret “black box” if you learn how it works and how to fix it. I use that lesson every day.
When I got to high school, I joined the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics team. FIRST is a non-profit organization that sponsors student robotics competitions. Students are given strict timeframes and rules and must work together to design and build a robot to perform certain tasks. Suddenly, all my creative skills and energy had found an outlet, and I had a challenge that held my interest.
In my freshman year, our team was sponsored by a company who made PET blow molds for drink and condiment containers. At first, the students didn’t get to do a whole lot of work on the robot — until one day my friend and I were given copies of AutoCAD LT-97 and Mechanical Desktop. The sponsoring engineers, who until this point had been doing most of the work, saw that a few students, myself included, were picking up skills very quickly. We were still making simple block drawings, but we were learning the program and exploring how it worked. They would feed us some new skills to help us with a task and then turn us loose to solve the problem. I started showing up early and staying late on Saturdays to pick the brains of the engineers and beg them to let me use the tools (or at least watch while they did). That year, I learned to solder copper pipes and made several modifications to the robot.
My Sophomore year is when everything came together for me. Our team lost the bottle-making company sponsorship, but our science teacher found a small machine shop in Manchester, NH that was willing to act as our sponsor. At first, it was the same old story — the adults build the robot, and the kids are supposed to get excited. Then one day, completely out of the blue, the shop owner came over to me and said “Hey, you look like you would have fun with this stuff!”
I was over the moon with excitement. He took me back to the shop and we set up a Bridgeport to make some simple adjustable axle blocks. He would give me one operation to do and a pile of parts to work on. We repeated this for a bunch of different parts, with the owner doing the setup and me running the mill. Later, as I got more confident with the Bridgeport, I would set up the machine and show him how I was going to do it. He would say “OK” or offer a suggestion and I would get to work.
In my junior year, we had a few more very skilled mentors aboard. We had seen some other teams make custom drill motor mounts and wanted to make some for our robot. I tried my best to design a mount for my team, but I was never quite able to pull it off. One of the fathers was a machinist, so he sat down with me and a pile of graph paper and we worked out the design logically, step by step. He steered me in the right direction, but still let me make small mistakes – the kind that you can learn from without ruining your design. The motor mounts worked out great (how they were bolted to the chassis is a different story, but that part of learning). That summer, I was offered work in the machine shop full time. I learned so much that summer.
Senior year rolled around. The guidance counselors decided that I was not cut out to take physics because I had done poorly in chemistry. Back then, much like now, everyone said you had to go to college to be successful. The shop I worked in over the summer had one big customer, and when that customer pulled out they had to close. No engineering college would let me in without high school physics, but the staff were adamant that I would not be allowed to take the class. So, reluctantly, I jumped ship and went back to public school that last year.
I got hooked up with the Nashua FIRST team and I was “the guy” with practical knowledge. On that team, the adults again did everything and the kids handed them wrenches and donuts. Despite this, my last year of school was great. I befriended the machine shop teacher and would cut health class to go work in the shop on projects. For that year, I was his floating shop helper. This guy was amazing. He was building a timber frame house by himself and he wanted a 10″ handheld power planer. So he took his 6 inch planer apart, reverse engineered it, and built his own.
The team sponsor that year was BAE systems. I convinced one of the drafters, Bill, to let me try my hand at drawing in Pro-Engineer. Back then, there was a belief that the program had a 6 month to 1 year learning curve. I had already used a handful of Autodesk products and I think Bill eventually got sick of me hovering over his shoulder talking about how cool CAD was. One day he turned around and said “you want to drive?”. Jackpot.
Pro-E was really clunky and painful to use back then. Bill got me set up detailing drawings from models he created. I had a good base of knowledge of how things were made in a machine shop, so I took to that task very quickly. Two other students followed suit, and pretty soon we had our own little design cell. One of the managers got some student copies and a book for us to take home and I never looked back. A group of about four of us set out to make 6″ billet aluminum wheel and a two speed belt drive gear box. They were the “Nice to Have” features if we could get them done in time, but there was more than a little skepticism. The shop at BAE was slammed to begin with, so they didn’t have much time to let us work on their equipment. I told the lead mentor that we could make those parts at the high school. She gave us a deadline and got us some help. Between the four of us and our machine shop teacher, we got them done. One weekend, the BAE machinist (Timmy) came in and showed us how to cut soft jaws for the first time. I still have all those parts (even the scrapped ones) today. That summer, I was offered a job in the drafting department at BAE running Pro-Engineer. I learned all about GD&T and how to make nice drawings and models. I wouldn’t trade any of these experiences for the world.
That’s enough story for one email. The point of my story, and the idea that I wish more people in the education system would understand, is that I learned Engineering from the shop floor to the desk, not the other way around. I did graduate from Wentworth Institute of Technology with a BS MET degree. I’ve gone on to work on research projects at big companies, held positions at small shops, and even worked for a professional Rally Car team. I have found a niche that allows me to keep a foot in both worlds. Currently I’m 33 years old and self employed; I do short runs of parts for people on my Tormach PCNC 1100 along with consulting for a few companies. I have far surpassed the expectations that were set for me.
I also set aside a lot of time for the Dover, NH FIRST robotics team, which we have built into a year-round program instead of just six weeks. If I can give even a fraction of the great experiences I had to the next generation, I will know I’ve done something right. The kids I teach are so bright and it’s awesome to see them light up with enthusiasm. I also see that they are terribly afraid of failure. These kids think they have to be perfect at everything. I go out of my way to say it’s ok to make mistakes, but let’s learn why it didn’t work. If our education system takes the time to actually teach instead of just going through the motions, amazing things can happen.
Keep up the good work!
Tim Mallard is a mechanical engineer, machinist, welder, and bicycle mechanic. He is a guy who just can’t refrain from taking stuff apart and making it do something it wasn’t designed to do. He has worked in research and development labs, as a support engineer in machine shops, and even on a professional rally car team. Tim also coaches his local high school’s FIRST Robotics team and is diligently working towards training the next generation of engineers with real hands-on skills. Currently, he is self-employed as a contract engineer and prototype maker using his Tormach PCNC 1100 and Makerbot Replicator 2x.
Student initial test runs via YouTube