Thursday, June 21, 2007

Relative Engineering

Recently, a relative who is a mechanical engineer visited me, and I gave him a tour of some of the lab facilities in my department. This was extremely interesting for both of us. He was amazed at the kinds of things we can do in these labs, and I was very interested in his comments about ways to improve the lab in some important ways. He had lots of excellent advice about ways to increase efficiency and decrease some unwanted side-effects related to operation of some of the machines.

This was both great and not-so-great because the things he proposed -- even simple things -- are probably impossible to do if we involve the university's facilities office. The facilities office here is inefficient, expensive, slow, and has mysterious ways of working that can produce negative results. Does anyone out there have a facilities department that is actually helpful, efficient, quick, and cost-effective?

There are so many things I wish I knew more about, and now mechanical engineering is high on the list. It's impossible to do everything yourself, though, and this incident with my visiting relative highlighted for me yet again how much you can learn if you spend time with people in other fields.

7 comments:

Kristin said...

"Does anyone out there have a facilities department that is actually helpful, efficient, quick, and cost-effective?"

You imply that such a thing is possible! Actually, the facilities department at my school has improved a lot recently since our new college president "repurposed" the head of facilities - the previous two presidents couldn't fire him (don't know why). They will now actually give advanced notice when, for example, the water needs to be shut off to an entire building.

lost academic said...

Sometimes it's easier to trade work with people like that--get a mechanical engineer or mechanic to help you with something, trade them something they need you for in return. Trying to go through the 'official channels' sometimes is a waste of everyone's time and money. However, it might be best to make sure you can make those modifications without involving facilities--I've been in places where facilities was VERY touchy about things they weren't informed of.

Anonymous said...

When we clean our labs (I mean our bi-yearly total reorganization and cleanup), we are actually violating the contract we have with janitorial services because we sweep, mop, vacuum and empty trash.

It's frustrating because we do a much more thorough job and clean more deeply, but we get frowned upon for it. To be fair, they are short staffed to cut costs, but needless to say, as clean as we like it is not as clean as they get it.

The same seems to happen if we want to change our own lightbulbs - we have to put in a work order, wait a week and then someone comes to change the bulb. Sometimes it's even the right one. Changing it ourselves is not an option.

The one person that gets things done and makes things happen (and warns us when hoods are going down - I'm a chemist) is retiring Jan 2008. I fear the future.

It's a tricky issue to be sure - you don't want to shoot yourself in the foot by angering the facilities folks, but it's annoying to not be able to adjust/fix things on a reasonable time scale if you can.

Lisa said...

I have heard of at least a couple of situations in different places where people were allowed (or believed they were allowed, or at least that they wouldn't get caught) to do facilities-type work on their own as long as they were doing it when the facilities people weren't available. Moving all your lab equipment on labor day, for instance, or painting the walls in the middle of the night . . .

Anonymous said...

Not here. They are horrible. I've always thought it is funny they are called "Facilities." They should be called maybe "Buildings and Equipment" or "Difficulties"...

thm said...

They key, I think, is the support staff for your building, and if they can be the interface to the University's facilities people. I did my graduate work in a department which had a large condensed matter physics contingent, perhaps two dozen laboratory groups in two departments in the building. It was big enough to have a few blue-collar types who were sort of building manager/ handyman types. They did simple electrical and plumbing work (nothing over 220V), helped move large pieces of equipment, oversaw modifications to lab space, and so forth. When jobs required more than their abilities, they did most of the dealing with the University's facilities people.

The catch was that their jobs were not always terribly demanding; it was sort of a joke how much time they had to talk politics with the other support staff, or take naps, and so forth. I'm convinced, though, that their presence made such a difference in the efficiency of the place that it was worth it to have them occasionally only do 15 hours of work in a week.

Lab Rat said...

Whew, I'm glad to hear it's not just me who's having problems with facilities departments!

Even simple things like moving in new cabinets involves at least a few weeks of "review" over here.