With powerful lathes, mills and welding tools, precision users need microscopes to see their work, the range of devices used in Duke Health’s custom fabrication and design shop is impressive.
But the shop’s most important tools are the minds of five staff members.
While the team often tackles simple solutions, such as sharpening delicate cutting tools or repairing broken equipment carts, they show ingenuity in creating machine parts and tools. custom surgical kits that provide Duke physicians with innovative equipment perfectly suited to the care they provide.
“It’s like having a cool puzzle in front of you,” said shop foreman Don Pearce.
The shop is just one of many places in Duke where staff members use creativity, experience and specialized tools to fix just about anything.
In search of the perfect sound
When John Santoianni listens to music played on the four organs in Duke University Chapel, the oldest of which was built in 1932, it’s hard to fully appreciate it.
Responsible for thousands of perfect-sounding organ pipes, Santoianni’s ears detect slight flaws that most listeners miss.
“I listen and I think ‘This division is a bit off or this flute needs some reworking,'” Santoianni said. “I hear what could be better. But for me, it’s my job.
Since 2002, Santoianni, the Ethel Sieck Carrabina Curator of Organs and Harpsichords, has been in charge of the chapel’s four organs and eight others scattered around campus. Much of this work involves keeping the organs in tune by making slight adjustments to the metal and wooden pipes, which change with the seasons.
Santoianni also repairs and refreshes the inner workings of organs in his workshop on the lower level of the Duke’s Chapel, with its low ceiling and walls filled with carpentry tools.
It’s a natural role for Santoianni, who grew up with a passion for music in a family of engineers. After college, he apprenticed with organ builders and started his own organ building business before joining the Duke team 20 years ago.
Now he tends to the massive organs at Duke Chapel, making sure every pipe does its part in producing their beautiful tones.
“There’s always something to do,” Santoianni said.
Ready for everything
The Structural Trades Shop, part of Duke Facilities Management, works in a brick building between the East Campus Steam Plant and Smith’s Warehouse. Store Manager Chris Brooks will tell you, the work being done can be seen all over campus.
“We do a bit of everything,” Brooks said.
The Structural Trades team includes two carpenters, three painters, three plasterers and a cabinetmaker. Obtaining assignments primarily through work requests, the team builds custom shelves, tables and desks. He also repairs walls and ceilings, paints interior spaces, and repairs glass, tile, and stone.
“If you need to fix or fabricate something, we can do whatever you want,” said master carpenter Andy O’Shea.
The workshop is a winding two-story facility filled with everything needed to tackle big jobs. Upstairs there is a carpentry workshop with mechanical sanders, saws and lathes. Downstairs, the paint shop features a large enclosed paint booth with bright lights and a ventilation system that provides an omnipresent hum.
While the Structure Trades team is filled with specialists, with many projects requiring different types of work, teamwork looms large.
An example of this can be seen in the restoration of the wooden doors on West Campus. With carpenters building new ones and painting staff refinishing many more, it’s a project that has touched almost every corner of the shop.
“We are responsible for around 250 Gothic oak doors. In the last three years, we’ve done nearly all of them,” said lead painter Brian Williams. “That kept us busy.”
Specialized tools for the job
As Rachel Penniman, a conservation specialist at the Verne and Tanya Roberts Conservation Lab, explained, there are rarely jobs that fit into her team’s Perkins Library workspace that would qualify as straightforward.
From figuring out how to build a box for a machine used to test lipstick to figuring out how best to store campaign buttons, the lab team faces a variety of tricky challenges.
“I would say that everything we work on has an element of, ‘How am I going to fix this?'” Penniman said.
The Preservation Lab is where Duke Libraries sends its books and materials in need of repair. This is also where new library items are given bespoke boxes that will allow them to be stored safely.
To do this, the laboratory’s five full-time employees demonstrate patience, a steady hand and a panoply of tools.
The laboratory has state-of-the-art vacuum tables for working with delicate papers and heavy iron shears and presses that were manufactured in the first half of the 20th century.
Staff members use measuring tools such as micrometers and calipers, blades, brushes, tapes and folders – or flat, hard tools that can create precision bends.
“We all have our personal tool stash because we like to work with what we know,” said Beth Doyle, senior curator at Leona B. Carpenter and head of the Department of Conservation Sciences at Duke University Libraries. .
Doyle then shows a small blade fixed in a handle that fits perfectly in his hand.
“It’s a tool I made myself,” Doyle said. “If I ever lose this, I’ll just walk away.”
think about a solution
The simplest explanation for what happens at Duke Health’s custom fabrication and design shop, located in a square warehouse on Golden Drive, is that this is where the metal and plastic equipment used by Duke staff and researchers are repaired. It’s where dull scissors are sharpened, squeaky carts are refreshed, and hard-to-find spare parts for hospital equipment are sometimes recreated from scratch.
The creativity of the stores team shines through when confronted with problems requiring bespoke solutions.
In the past, team members have created wall hooks and handles to help amputees maneuver their prosthetics, and custom drain filters to prevent microscopic fish eggs from reaching sewers.
During the pandemic, they fabricated face shields and created brackets that allowed ventilator mechanical parts to be housed outside of COVID patient rooms, reducing the risk of exposure for caregivers.
“The freedom to be creative is everything about this job,” said shop foreman Don Pearce. “We collaborate with so many people who share their knowledge, so it’s like continuing education.”
Working amid huge machinery and crowded shelves, staff fulfill work orders submitted through the Engineering & Operations website. But they know there’s not a lot of distance between what happens in their shop and the patients Duke serves.
This connection is highlighted with one of senior instrument maker Brandon Capps’ favorite projects. In 2020, Capps helped design a tiny forceps with a curved opening that could hold the tubing of a small catheter. Created for cardiac surgeries performed on infants, the forceps did the job previously done by two tools.
“It gives them more room to work,” Capps said, holding the delicate piece of steel that may help save a young life.
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