Rack And Roll
WCC Fabrication Students Dive Into Project For Sheriff’s Office
By Janet Miller
A WCC fabrication class took a step into the real world when the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office dive team had a problem. The issue: The new 350-foot umbilical lines divers used when they were underwater were heavy and bulky and took up precious space on the bottom of the 24-foot dive team boat. The lines were also difficult to transport and needed to be stored in a safe spot, free from car tires that could crush them and away from abrasive sand and gravel.
Sgt. Paul Cook, who heads up the Sheriff’s Office Underwater Search and Recovery Team, had a vision for the storage rack and mounting system he wanted, but no way to make it. A graduate of WCC, he turned to the College. “I figured all they could do was tell us no,” he said.
No was never considered, said Glenn Kay, an instructor in the welding and fabrication department. “We have a state-of-the-art, world-class facility,” he said. “This was an opportunity to give our students real-world experience by fitting it into our curriculum. It was a great opportunity to work with the community.”
Cook wanted a device that could clamp onto the side of the boat and hold a rack that housed the braided network of hoses, Kay said. “Like a big garden hose reel,” he said.
But there was more. It had to be lightweight, strong, and resistant to corrosion. It needed to be transportable by a single person. There needed to be a way that the rack and coiled lines could be taken off the boat and used in awkward spaces, such as on a steep riverbank or in shallow water. And finally, the whole system needed to be mounted on the inside doors of the Sheriff’s Office truck that transports the equipment. “There were a lot of requirements,” Kay said.
This Class Project Had Real-Life Implications
Students in the Basic Fabrication class spent 18 months, covering three semesters, working on the project, which was completed this winter. Working with instructors, students created two identical systems, one for the main line system and another for the backup. Each set of lines weighs about 80 pounds.
Fabrication students created three pieces for each system: an aluminum rack that holds the coiled line, a bracket bolted to the side of the boat to hold the rack, and an industrial-sized tripod-like system with three adjustable legs that can be set up off the boat.
The rack, made of aluminum tubing, had to have rounded corners to keep the line from being damaged. A wheel system was added to make it portable.
While fabrication students have always had hands-on experiences—they’ve made everything from bass guitars to toolboxes to gazebos for personal use—the racking system presented a new lesson: working for someone else.
The partnership between WCC and the Sheriff’s Office gave students the chance to step into the real world, said Ray Marcus, the fabrication instructor who worked on the project. “It was more practical metal work,” he said. “It’s hard to plan a problem when you’re working on a classroom project. But this was real-world metal work.”
Students had to overcome problems along the way. For example, the aluminum would sometimes crack when students tried to bend it for a piece in the system. They learned they had to heat the material to make it softer, getting firsthand experience in annealing aluminum. And there was welding. “They learned how to make fit-ups,” Marcus said. “There were moving mechanical parts that had to work with each another. And we had to make sure everything was strong enough.”
There was another real-world lesson, Kay said: living within a budget. The Sheriff’s Office spent $2,500 on materials. “You can’t go back and ask for more money,” Kay said.
That meant doing things right the first time, just like in the real world. “There was a set amount of metal, and you couldn’t make a big mistake,” Kay said. “They learned to measure twice and cut once. It puts the pressure on to think things through.”
Having a Clear Vision Made the Build Easier
Kay said it helped that the Sheriff’s Office knew exactly what it wanted.
“We wanted to be able to affix the lines firmly to the boat, but out of the way,” Cook said. “We needed a way to transport them over a wide variety of terrain and be able to employ them at just about any location.”
The lines consist of three hoses that are braided together to create an umbilical line that furnishes surface air and communications and measures depth. The Sheriff’s Office purchased the line system in late 2010.
The Sheriff’s Office dive team recovers drowning victims, criminal evidence, and property, and responds to boating accidents. While there are commercial reels for the line system on the market, they are large, require a power system, are prohibitively expensive, and are used mostly by commercial diving outfits. The Sheriff’s Office was looking for a simpler system where hoses could be manually wrapped around the rack, Cook said. “It’s not complicated and it’s virtually fail-safe,” he said of what the students created.
The Sheriff’s Office benefited from the partnership, but so did WCC students. Students applied what they learned in class, from using a drill press and vertical band saw to drilling holes to tolerance levels, Kay said. “They used every aspect of what they learned in class and applied it to the project,” he said. Kay said WCC would entertain working on another commercial project if it fits into the curriculum.
Janet Miller is a freelance writer.