Morphing into the dreaded User Facility

Morphing into the dreaded User Facility

Hi Everyone! I’m GEARS which stands for Grads, Engineering, Academia, Research, and Students. I’m a newly minted PhD student who has accepted a tenure track position at a small Tier 1 private university (dubbed SnowU) starting at the end of this semester. Rather than looking back retrospectively and getting caught with shoulda-coulda-wouldas, I thought I start blogging about my experience transitioning from a wide-eyed PhD student to a refined, distinguished assistant professor. (Well maybe I’m getting carried away here but you get the point.) Blogging helps me jot down thoughts and ideas which will (hopefully) help me mentor students more effectively and run a successful research group while actually reaching students in the classroom.

Yesterday, I harped on how Knowledge Learned doesn’t show up anywhere on a company’s balance sheet. That makes it very difficult to explain and justify why you should do something yourself, as a researcher, in a company. Today, I want to expand this theme and bring some more academia to Engineer Blogs by discussing the flip side of the coin. Most universities with world class facilities are now morphing into the dreaded User Facility. The term User Facility is something I’m going to try and avoid as much as possible at SnowU when I start looking to build and expand their infrastructure.

Since I’m a ME, I’ll use the example of turning a high speed machining center (HSMC) into a User Facility. The university spends a large chunk of cash on this HSMC because there is sufficient research in this field and they need it for experiments. Also, now the university has a shiny new HSMC which they can use to leverage against getting new grant money (ie: we have great facilities, please give us money). However, in addition to the capital cost, the university has to pay for maintenance, depreciation (such a terrible accounting invention), insurance, technicians to maintain a knowledge base, etc etc. Basically, they have continuous costs associated with this machine so they decide to turn it into a User Facility to make some money back.

User Facilities can be great for a few reasons. For example:

  • You have a new startup company building widgets. And your new widgets could be made better on a HSMC rather than a conventional milling machine. But you don’t have the capital to afford a new (or even old) HSMC. Good thing the university has this great User Facility where you can rent machine time at a reasonable rate to prototype your widget. This can help you out until you have sufficient demand to buy your own HSMC or establish a more commercial partnership.
  • Another is that you’re a large manufacturing company and you want to know if you can make your products out of a different, potentially easier to machine material that’s cheaper with better properties. You currently have a bunch of HSMCs but they’re running 24/7 in a production line that you don’t want to interrupt. You contact the local university with their fancy new HSMC and see if you can buy some hours to investigate this new material. Once that’s done, it’s a quick switch in your production line and you’re ready to go. No more need for the university.

These reasons all center around the same thing: external entities needing one-offs, prototypes, small production runs/batches. The problem is once the university sets up their User Facility and they realize they can make some money from it, they try to make money from everyone. This includes students and faculty who use the equipment for producing results for the university. What was originally intended as a learning tool and a place where students and faculty can get real, hands-on knowledge now becomes an attempted money-maker for the university.

I say attempted money-maker because eventually, faculty cannot afford the internal rates that are being charged to use a machine. For a student to work on the HSMC in this case, their faculty advisor would probably have to pay $20/hr to $50/hr. Per week of full time research, that’s $800 – $2000. Now imagine you’re a professor who has 2 students, both using this HSMC who need to spend considerable time on the machines (10 weeks/year). You’d have to bring in at least $64,000 – $160,000 for machine time for your students to finish their PhD. That’s not including any material (what are you going to cut using that HSMC?), tools (you need end mills don’t you?), and other stuff you might need. That’s a lot of money to get for equipment for 2 PhD projects. Most projects I’ve seen don’t come with nearly that much.

The kicker is the university’s response. The university administrators wonder why they have this new equipment that everyone wanted but no one uses. That’s because it’s too expensive to use when you turn it into a User Facility for internal users. But when the faculty member brings in grant money, the university charges 50%-85% overhead. Isn’t that what the overhead is for? General upkeep and common facilities for all internal users?

User Facilities are great ideas for fostering external partnerships or helping internal startup companies get off the ground. But when, as a university, you have shifted the focus of using a new piece of equipment as a learning tool to a money-maker, you have lost sight of the whole academic objective. I hope I don’t run into this when I get to SnowU because I have big plans and ideas, but that would cause them to crash and burn.


My college does a similar thing with their surface mount soldering lab. There’s various pick and place machines and reflow ovens available for research but also for smaller companies in the area. I’m not sure what any of the costs are though to use the machines but I do know you have to supply your own reels of components. I myself have only used the lab for the rework stations available when debugging boards. If only Senior Design teams weren’t allowed in there, then the iron tips and tweezers wouldn’t be destroyed…

Please take my comments as advice rather than complaints about the college educational system.

Some of your undergraduate students are in college only to learn the basics of the profession. When I was in college, I knew that higher education meant getting my BSME and probably nothing more. I knew that I wasn’t a good student and just graduating in engineering with a decent grade point average was fine with me.

IMHO after a 35 year career, I see far too many green graduates enter the profession without any real idea as to how to get anything done. The days of spending the 1st 5 to 10 years on the job before you get the grand title of “senior engineer” are gone forever. Now days, even the newbie engineer needs to be able to contribute from day 1 on the job.

We need young engineers that can work with their hands as well as with their minds. I shouldn’t have to explain to a graduate engineer how to do bolt torques calcs or how to plan on setting up a proof of principle experiment in the shop, I shouldn’t have to show an engineer how to assemble and test his equipment designs. I don’t expect an engineer to be able to run a mill, lathe, or stick weld. But, I do expect an engineer to be able to work out issues with a machinist or welder when there are questions to be answered.

So, my question to you is are we teaching our new engineering students enough of the basics in college or are we glossing over it in the junior courses so that they can get to the more fun things in the course study?

BTW, the worst young engineers I ever saw were out of what you mind consider some of the higher ranking universities in California. One even had the balls to tell me that he would only use a Mac and nothing else.

I think we have a disconnect between when you’re describing and what I’m describing. I’m referring to research intensive universities and students going for MS and PhD degrees. The whole “User Facility” issues is a political one where universities are trying to be more like companies and less like places of study. At my old BS and MS university, they have some of the best machines in the world for that program and no one uses them because they can’t afford to because of this stupid User Facility model. Faculty have to bring in unrealistic amounts of money which consumes the bulk of their time and so they lose the opportunity to help expand the research with their students.

Now, with what you’re saying, I agree that there are probably too many green engineers out in the field specifically because they aren’t give a hands-on curriculum. Everything is taught based on theory and but in my experience, real engineering doesn’t begin until you’ve designed it, built it, tested it and it didn’t work like you expected. Debugging and things missed in the design phase due to lack of experience are things they don’t teach in books. And yes, in some cases, fresh graduates shouldn’t get the title senior engineer after only a few years on the job. But if you have a PhD and are good, I would expect that. I think it boils down to that a lot has changed in 35 years between how students were taught then and how they are taught now. Also, the whole academic model of universities have changed (for example the “User Facility”)

New engineers are expected to know similar levels of theoretical aspects they did 35 years ago, plus they’re expected to know and use 20 different kinds of softwares for various calculations, design, and programming.

Professors 35 years ago probably didn’t spend 80% of their time writing research proposals. They probably focused more on teaching and research and that probably reflects in a higher education level for the fundamentals. It’s not that now they’re trying to skip over the basics to the “new shiny toys” but rather they don’t have the time for it.

University faculties are stretched thin and with academic funding harder to come by, teaching UGs the basics seems to not be priority number one. I think that’s more indicative of the system than individual faculty members. Most will tell you their time should be spent 50% research, 30% teaching, 20% service/committees (that’s roughly my breakdown). Unless you’re going to make teaching the 50% priority, you’re going to continue to see this trend.

Ultimately, what I take away from your comments is the frustration of having to explain how to “Get Things Done”. I’m not claiming to have decades of experience, but that seems to me as something that people either have or don’t have. I’ve worked with people that have it and people that don’t and that’s not something that correlates to GPA or test grades or anything that is quantifiable. The only correlation I could venture is more (not all) graduate students in engineering seem to have it than undergraduate students. If you’ve been only working with people with an undergraduate degree, maybe that’s a reason. Maybe more people with that skill are staying in college for advanced degrees or going into other fields.

Um, An Old Engineer, what are you on about? Gears was talking about a very specific trend that this happening in Universities. I trend I don’t like either. It’s also happening in National Labs, not good. For a lower tech example – this is why internal machine shops are disappearing.

An Old Engineer, you do realize what you sound like right? Cranky old guy yelling, “You kids, you get off my lawn.” The old folks always bitch about the young ones not knowing anything and wanting to move up fast. The young folks always bitch about the old ones not ever wanting to change anything. And everyone is just make sweeping generalizations about everyone else and not actually treating people like individuals.

Yes, without a doubt, the curricula at universities has changed over the last 30 years. This is a good thing. I’m sorry, it is not relevant for all engineers to have full hand drawing skills, they should be learning the computer programs. Companies are also expecting different things. Before, a company wouldn’t expect a new engineer to know everything, they’d train you up. Now in the day of Monster job boards, they can hire people with the exact need skills, so there is much less training going on. Thus, the new engineer has different skills and isn’t really getting the training.

Please, enough with the generalizations about people. If you worked with specific people that were not able to do the work or complained too much, that’s on that person, not all young engineers.

And not that I’m all on Macs, but maybe you should have asked why the person wanted to use only Macs. Are you any better by saying that you only use non-Macs?

As one who has leveraged user facilities numerous times over the years, I always assumed that I was just buying excess capacity… If things are morphing into the situation you described, egads.

As a fellow cranky old guy, the curricula presented by Kate seems more aligned with technical training rather than education. It might be that I am misreading things, but if such is the case, I wonder how such will play out with the short half lives of tech training, and likewise with market driven 10-15 yr career rip up and redo as is common today.

We’ve discussed this in other threads, but here’s my take: industry wants techs who can also think abstractly. They complain endlessly about ‘grads not having relevant skills’ when the reality is they want the universities to train them on specific software or techniques so the company doesn’t have to. It’s cheaper for the companies that way. However, they complain that techs don’t understand the underlying issues with various techniques and software, so they can’t put them in various positions. Basically, they want people to spend 8 years in school.

On the other hand, it’s a complete disservice to train students on specialized software in place of theory. The theory can be applied to any job (hypothetically) and is much more useful than knowing how to plug numbers into a computer. But again, the companies don’t want to bother with actually training employees.

Cherish, you’re totally true. People that have spent the extra 6 years in school earning a MS and a PhD would be the ideal candidates for companies to do the tech work except for one slight problem…

Company: Can you learn a new software program in a month?
Newly Minted PhD: Sure, no problem. I had to do that x times during my studies.
Company: Ok. Do you have the fundamentals to understand the underlying issues?
Newly Minted PhD: Yes, I have those. And if I don’t I can teach myself because I’ve had to do that before.
Company: Need supplemental training by the company?
Newly Minted PhD: Nope.
Company: Ok Great! How much do you cost?
Newly Minted PhD: Five times more than you’re willing to pay for a technician position.

That’s the problem Ron. If you’re buying excess capacity as an outside, that’s fine. The problem occurs when you’ve asked your internal people to buy their own capacity.

When money dries up, now all you have is a fancy machine with tons of excess capacity and no one able to use it.

I have heard of paid staff who bypass this, but it’s at personal expense to them – they use the facility after hours, off the clock, when no one is scheduled to be at the facility in order to help students with projects or profs to get preliminary data. But I imagine this would be more difficult at some places than others.

Not only does my facility charge user fees for students, but I pay university 45% overhead on those fees. That is, for a $1000/month fee I must budget $1450 from a grant.

Results: I still use the facility, it is a wonderful resource when I can afford it, and my students learn valuable skills there. But I shifted newer students to cheaper research areas, and often send things out to be manufactured off campus. The rest of my research program is going in this direction after current users graduate.
My colleague has set it up so 2 students get to use the facility in alternate months! I see a flurry of activity from those students at the end-of-month deadline. Perhaps he is on to something.

In recent years our facility has had the population of a ghost town.

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