The Unstoppable Designer

29 Oct, 2014 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

User Profile: Matt Rifenburg’s career is proof that passion, determination, and the willingness to take on new challenges can overcome many obstacles.

Designer and drafter Matt Rifenburg didn’t let anything stand in the way of becoming a skilled user of Autodesk Inventor and AutoCAD — not his early departure from high school, not his lack of a college education, not even a battle to overcome a brain tumor. And now, at the age of 52, he is pursuing his first degree.

Cadalyst: How did you become interested in engineering?

Matt Rifenburg: I had always been interested in how things work. I started working in a gas station at age 12, and quickly fell in love with cars. I eventually took a job as a painter to support my car habit, then got into building maintenance.

In 2000, I began working for BioSpectra, a small biotech company in Pennsylvania, as a maintenance technician. When the company brought all of its maintenance tasks in-house to save money — including electrical work and plumbing — I had to figure out how to keep the plant running, despite never having worked in any type of manufacturing environment before.

Over time I was able to design, build, and refurbish a variety of pharmaceutical processes and machines, including fluid bed dryers, screw conveyors, heating and cooling systems, and centrifuges. We used CAD to communicate and document ideas as we grew. Much of the equipment I created is still in use today.

One project I worked on was designing and building a continuous process to purify urea. I collaborated on the process design and layout with almost everyone at the company, sourced equipment, and designed a stainless steel and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) screw conveyor, plus two HDPE and structural fiberglass fluid bed dryers for drying the purified crystalline urea.

Material is fed continuously into the screw conveyor, moved into a tank where it is heated, then pumped through a set of filters to another tank to cool and crystallize. The resulting slurry is fed to a continuous centrifuge, where crystal and liquid are separated. The liquid is returned to the hot tank, and the crystal is dropped into a 20’ long dryer where it is dried, then a 10' dryer to be cooled before packaging.  

Balancing the material flow through the process was a significant challenge since we previously had only batch-type processes, and we had no experience with continuous processes. The urea process can run continuously with minimal operator contact, reducing the risk of product contamination.

Two of the fluid bed dryers that Rifenburg designed for the purification process, which was the first FDA-registered, cGMP-compliant continuous process for urea ever built.

Process control panel for the continuous process that Rifenburg designed. Images courtesy of BioSpectra.

What was your introduction to CAD software?

I started out using Autodesk Inventor 10 in my thirties, and I struggled a bit getting the hang of things. I had no idea what 3D modeling was all about; I just knew it looked cool and was a great way to get ideas across. Rick Mutchler — my boss at BioSpectra and the company’s owner — was really supportive of my desire to learn, so I took a fundamentals class to get the basics down. The rest I have taught myself, for the most part. I have used some of the Mastering Autodesk Inventor books, I am an avid reader of the Inventor forums, and I've found YouTube to be a great resource as well. Also, attending Autodesk University is a great way to get help and new ideas. The classes are great, and spending a few days with 9,000 fellow CAD geeks is inspiring; I highly recommend it.

I am also a member of the Autodesk Developer Network, and a beta tester for the past couple of Inventor releases. I have ideas about how I want to use Inventor to speed up the design process, and this allows me to test these ideas, learn to program, etc., which I work on in my minimal spare time.

I am not as proficient with Inventor as many of the other users I have met. I’ve been to Autodesk University twice now, and I always come back feeling awed; it seems like everyone else is doing all kinds of incredible things with the software. It gives me some perspective: No matter how good I might think I am, there is still much I have to learn.

Now you work in the drafting department at the Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based Sciences and Education (CLASSE). How did you wind up there?

In late 2007, a layoff and a brain tumor kept me busy for about the next eight months. When I went back to work, I was hired for my Inventor experience but ended up using AutoCAD for a large biotech project. I had taken an eight-week AutoCAD fundamentals course while recovering from the brain surgery, but had never used it on the job before this. When the economy got bad in 2009 or so, I moved to a large industrial gas supplier that built hydrogen and helium storage and transport containers. There, I helped with the changeover to Inventor from AutoCAD Mechanical. When I applied for the Cornell position, I knew nothing about particle physics or accelerators, but I was hired over 50 other applicants because of my previous experience and Inventor proficiency.

I currently support the physicists, engineers, and various graduate students who work in our labs. Sometimes I expand on their ideas until we have a workable design, then detail everything, have the machine shop or an outside vendor make parts, assist with assembly, and finally help install the finished product. Other times, I just detail models that they create for the machine shop. I use AutoCAD for some of our electrical schematics, but everything else for the particle accelerator projects is designed in Inventor, including parts, systems, and layouts.

Matt Rifenburg, pictured with various magnets in the Energy Recovery Linear Accelerator (ERL) space at Cornell University.

Some of the projects I have been involved in are:

  • Support and adjustment mechanisms for a large horizontal test cryostat for multicell SRF cavities
  • Magnet support structures for quadruple, sextuple, and steering magnets
  • Vacuum chamber designs for an undulator magnet
  • Large-scale accelerator facility models for laboratory space studies for future development
  • Temperature-mapping structure for vertical tests of multicell SRF cavities at cryogenic temperatures.

As equipment is replaced or upgraded, we convert legacy part and assembly drawings to Inventor from hand drawings, Anvil-5000, AutoCAD, or Mechanical Desktop. The laboratory has been around since the mid-1940s, so there is a lot of legacy data. However, because of the fast pace of our research projects and the small size of our drafting staff, we don’t have enough time to focus on conversion.

My current title is Drafter 3, and I just received notification of my promotion to Research Support Specialist 1. This new position typically requires a Bachelor’s degree in engineering, but I am already doing the work that the position entails. I will still be involved with the CAD-related tasks I currently perform, but will also be doing more of my own design work, and operating more autonomously; it’s certainly an interesting development for me.

How do you feel about your work, and your CAD software tools?

I am working on cutting-edge research projects, and get to provide innovative solutions to fairly complex design problems, so I get to stretch my design abilities on an ongoing basis. To create something from a concept and make it into a working prototype or process is amazing to me. What I like most about my current position, however, is my coworkers; everyone is very supportive and easy to work with.

If I had any criticism about my job, it would be that we are somewhat slow to adopt new technologies, such as 3D printing, the cloud, laser scanning, etc. —which is odd, given the advanced research we do here. We are working to correct that, but it's an agonizingly slow process. I like to stay up-to-date on new developments and see where we can implement some of these things, but with the demanding pace of research, it is difficult to introduce a new workflow.

As far as software goes, I think Inventor is a great all-around program. The biggest drawback is that there is so much to learn, and to get comfortable using it all takes time. Every year the software changes, and it is sometimes difficult to keep up. For example, we have many users at the lab who have never used the Tube and Pipe or Cable and Harness environments in Inventor, because they haven’t had time to learn the functionality.

You’ve had a successful and varied career; have you ever felt that the lack of a degree affected your work or employability?

Not everything I have designed has been successful, but I have had pretty good luck designing things without the knowledge that having a degree might provide me, probably because I didn't know things weren't supposed to work a certain way. During my days at BioSpectra, I was fortunate to have a great boss who values innovation — I had a lot of latitude to try new things. Nowadays, I have some of the best engineers in the world just down the hall, so I get a lot of support for the projects I work on.

There were times I felt that some of my peers didn't take me seriously because I didn't understand things as readily as someone with more training might, but I realized that was more of a self-confidence issue. Here at the lab I feel like the dumbest guy in the room sometimes, because you can't throw a rock without hitting a PhD, engineer, or grad student, but it doesn't stop me. I just keep learning, and soaking it all in.

Why have you chosen to pursue your degree now?

I lost my job and found out about the tumor all in the same week. As you can imagine, that time period was difficult for my family: I had four surgeries, our house went into foreclosure, and our cars were repossessed. I needed to do something to ensure that we would never live through that again, and at that time, I felt that getting a degree was the long-term answer.

I have since realized that I don't technically need a degree. When you reach a certain skill level, your experience counts more than your education in many cases. With a degree, I would probably make more money over the long run, but it doesn't matter much to me at this point. Liking what you do and looking forward to going to work every day are more important to me than a high salary.

Cornell University has an excellent engineering program, however, and I want to take advantage of it. I have been taking 9–12 credits each semester at the local community college while working full time. When my Associate’s degree in Engineering Science is completed, I hope to transfer to Cornell to earn my Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. I will probably graduate right about the time I am ready to retire and live on the beach. As a high school dropout, it is somewhat ironic to me that I ended up here!

After dealing with the tumor, I decided that I would do things I wanted to do instead of things I had to do. Designing new machines and processes, or improving existing ones, is what I enjoy most. Design is such a big part of my life that it's hard to imagine doing anything else. There is so much yet to be designed and built! For now I just keep growing as a designer and taking on new challenges. I don't feel that there’s any task that’s not in my job description. With everything I have been through, my feeling now is that I can do anything I put my effort into.

Add comment

More News and Resources from Cadalyst Partners

For Mold Designers! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the mold design professional. Sponsored by Siemens NX.  Visit the Equipped Mold Designer here!

For Architects! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the building design professional. Sponsored by HP.  Visit the Equipped Architect here!