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This month we speak to John Prentice, manager of the Mechanical Workshop in the Department of Oncology. The workshop supports a wide range of research projects within the Medical Sciences Division and is also available to groups within the wider University community.

Tell us a little about yourselves and the Mechanical Workshop

John PrenticeThe Mechanical Workshop is located on the lower ground floor of the Old Road Campus Research Building (the big green one!) and in its current form has been around for over 15 years.

I manage the workshop, and together with my colleague Kyle Hallett, we provide technical support for research projects within the Department of Oncology and the University. I have over 30 years’ experience in mechanical design and manufacturing. Kyle has been with the workshop since 2015 when he became the Department’s first apprentice as a Mechanical Engineering Technician. A year later, Kyle was awarded the University of Oxford Advanced Apprenticeship award and was a highly commended runner up in the Oxfordshire Apprenticeship awards.

What’s a typical day like in the facility?

No two days are the same in the workshop and you are never quite sure what type of work you could be doing next because of the wide array of jobs we do. In the morning we could be helping to design optical components or even manufacturing a phantom for calibrating an MRI. In the afternoon we may well be servicing an aspirator pump or fitting out a lab.    

Over the year, we undertake around 350-400 various jobs ranging from single components to complex assemblies. Most smaller projects have a turnaround of 2-4 weeks depending on available materials, schedule and complexity of the work.

Talk us through the facilities and capabilities of the Workshop

The workshop offers a ‘total package’ from design consultation, computer modelling, CAD drawings, material sourcing, manufacture, maintenance and assembly. We have a modern, well-equipped workshop that is the envy of many universities and institutes. Our equipment includes state-of the-art CNC milling/turning machines, innovative Computer Aided Design packages (3-D) and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM). We also have a range of conventional, manually-operated machines and equipment for cutting, drilling, welding, fabrication and sheet metal work. Our 3D printer and laser cutter allow rapid prototyping of your parts with quick turnarounds. Furthermore, we employ calibration/inspection techniques, and use a state-of-the-art image dimension measuring system.

We have extensive experience working with a range of materials, with everything from ST/ST to titanium and lead. We also work with many other materials from ceramics, glass fibres and all the common engineering/medical grade materials.

What are the main reasons for members of the University to visit the facility?

Most of our customers contact the workshop for bespoke products that cannot be ‘bought off the shelf’ and need designing or manufacturing. Typically, these parts are for the medical field and a large proportion of them are for scientists and researchers. We also carry out repairs and maintenance on equipment and can re-engineer items and supply them at lower costs. Some projects may need ongoing modifications and improvements that can take years to complete; on the other end of the scale, some one-off items are completed in under a day.     

In the majority of cases we save departments and groups a large amount of money due to the expensive nature of medical items. A benefit of working with us is that we offer ongoing support and guidance with the products that we manufacture. If any additional parts are required or improvements are needed, we can supply them.

What collaborations/partnerships have you been involved with?

In addition to the work carried out within the Department, the workshop has provided services for groups within the wider academic community, both in the UK and globally. Examples of work include a range of micro-well plate fixtures used in protein crystallisation at the Oxford Protein Production Facility and optical components and camera accessories for the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics. The workshop has also collaborated on the design and manufacture of specialised waveguide and filter panels for the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics (DPAG) and the Oxford Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain (FMRIB). We have produced Hypoxia Chambers for North West Cancer Research Centre University of Liverpool and the Radiotherapy and Onco Immunology Laboratory in Nijmegen. In total we have provided services for 30+ groups within the University and externally. We have completed 1000s of custom projects for our customers since 2008.

Where is the facility? How can someone book in to use the facility?

Customers contact us with an enquiry and often it’s just an idea or hand-drawn sketch and occasionally even a detailed drawing. Our job is to interpret their ideas and guide them to the most efficient and cost-effective solutions to their project. The first step for us is to sit down with the client and model the product in full 3D. The user can then see the model of the finished product allowing us to make any design changes early on in the process, reducing errors and saving time and money before production begins. The next stage is to produce detailed drawings for approval before finally manufacturing the finished product.

We are always happy to help with new and exciting collaborations – if you would like to know more about our services and how we can help, get in touch by sending us an email.

Learn more about the Mechanical Workshop