Machine-Age Master

By Marcia Faye

The metal monster, olive-drab to gunmetal in color, is longer and wider than a hearse and weighs somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 pounds. Festooned with alloy shavings and outfitted with a series of hydraulic levers and hand-cranks, the 1939 Monarch lathe—“the first contour cutting machine in the world” according to the Monarch Machine Tool Company—might intimidate most individuals, but not metal master Craig Johnson, head of the Armour College of Engineering Machine Shop and coordinator of the Student Fabrication and Design Studio. In fact, you could say that the lathe is his pride and joy.

Machine-Age Master
Photo: Michael Goss

“It came from the Navy and somehow helped to fight World War II,” Johnson explains, acknowledging the years that IIT was involved in the V-12 Navy College Training Program. “The lathe is still sought after today. The bearings alone would sell for $18,000 each; the machine has appreciated over time. It’s hard to find decent manual machine tools nowadays. They really have no place in a production shop anymore; you would lose money by the buckets if you tried to make parts with it in quantity. But for prototyping shops or machine repair shops, something like this lathe is invaluable.”

The Monarch is just one of the many tools in Johnson’s kingdom of clink and clank. For nearly 26 years, IIT internal and external clients have tapped his artistic acumen to design and craft parts. These include everything from tiny titanium neurotransmitters for IIT Biomedical Engineering Professor Philip Troyk’s intracortical visual prosthesis project to metal connectors used in the ill-fated globe-circling balloon flight attempted by Kevin Uliassi (ARCH ’90) in 2000.

“Some of our parts flew to Burma and are now in the National Air and Space Museum,” says Johnson with a bemused smile, as he picks up a lightweight silver-colored object that looks like a miniature playground slide. “I don’t know a lot about drag racing, but apparently John Force is a name to be reckoned with and came to the shop a number of years ago because he wanted some work done on a car. This is a scale model of the wing that was on the back of his dragster; he wanted to optimize the performance of that. This was then mounted in one of IIT’s wind tunnels. Air was blown across it; we could change the angles of attack so that when it came to running the wing on the real car, it simplified and shortened the time needed to get the car running the way Force’s team wanted it to run.”

When Johnson and three other machinists staffed Armour’s Professional Shop, it was known as the go-to place for developing models, with various external clients including other academic institutions across the country and companies such as Boeing. Johnson now devotes his time fully to IIT and helping to keep the university’s wind tunnels in business.

Machine-Age Master

“It is indispensable to have someone with his experience,” says David R. Williams, wind tunnel researcher and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who served as the shop’s faculty supervisor from 2000–2010. “Craig almost always has a way of making the original idea better by taking a different approach, whether by simplifying the manufacturing process or utilizing a completely different idea. If we didn’t have that shop my research would easily be cut in half. I propose to do things knowing that I have this type of backup. Indirectly, he makes it possible for us to bring in our research grants and be competitive with other universities.”

Hailing from a long line of carpenters, machinists, and jewelers, Johnson had his own watch repair business before coming to IIT and began to develop his artisanship in the sixth grade, when his father bought him a home metal lathe. One of his first projects for Armour was helping to complete the construction of the National Diagnostic Facility wind tunnel. He is now looking forward to working more with Armour students as plans unfold to expand the Professional Shop’s offerings in the John T. Rettaliata Engineering Center (formerly Engineering 1).

Currently, Armour students can make objects in three different places within the facility: the Student Fabrication and Design Studio, a new open laboratory outfitted with rapid-prototyping machines, laser printers, small hand tools, and plenty of white board space for work on simple class projects; the Student Shop headed by Oscar “Stan” Johnson (no relation to Craig Johnson), where they learn safety basics and fabricate simple metalworking projects; and the Professional Shop, where students now have access to only one precision-cutting machine. The college is planning to open a wider area of the shop to students, who will receive further instruction from Johnson on completing advanced projects.

Johnson says that collaborating with students and faculty ranks right up there with coaxing precisely crafted pieces from his computer numerical control machines and old-school lathes.

“I very much enjoy looking at an idea or a sketch from students or faculty, working with them to create a final CAD [computer-aided design] model, and then going from that to a physical thing that becomes a useful piece of equipment that could help make a new contribution to science,” he says.