Small machines, big opportunity

While at NIU, Don Shields was a key member of a team that built a micro-milling machine, using off the shelf parts to build a $25,000 machine whose performance rivals those costing $100,000 or more. He’ll be sure to include it on his resume – as soon as he graduates.

Shields, 23, of Buford, Ill., doesn’t graduate until the end of the summer, but he already has significant hands-on experience in several fields he could choose to pursue.

“It’s been a great experience. It expanded my horizons in every direction. I gained technical skills, learned how to manage meetings, so many things,” says Shields of his work on the micromachine.

He joined the project at the end of his junior year and was tasked with solving a few minor electrical issues. A year later he had immersed himself in the project, developing expertise in a wide array of disciplines including mechanical controls, computer-aided drawing and a whole range of aspects related to integrated manufacturing. One of his biggest contributions: writing code that effectively got instructions from the computer (a standard Dell) to operate the spindle motor (borrowed from a radio-controlled helicopter) so that it can etch and cut metal at tolerances of +/- 2 microns -- about 0.00008 inches.

While the impact of Shield’s  work is a bit unusual, his work on the project is typical of the type of experiences that the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology tries to provide its students, says Cliff Mirman, chair of the Department of Technology.

“Don has been incredibly important to the project, he’s been involved in every phase,” says Mirman. “We like all of our students to learn by doing, but Don’s breadth of skill are exceptional."

As for that resume, Shields may not need it quite yet. He has already landed a job with a technology company interested in using the machine he helped create to advance alternative energy projects.

- by Joe King, NIU Public Affairs
- photos by Scott Walstrom, NIU Media Services