Devin McMillen is East Fork’s new Ceramic Engineer. He will blow your mind with his knowledge of ceramics, and then shatter your assumptions about engineers when he talks about his floor loom. 🤯Where are you from?
I'm from Southwest Missouri; my parents live in the village of Stella. In 2018 I moved to Cleveland, OH where my partner, Jacob, was working on his MA in Art History. In Ohio I worked for an injection molding company that made the ceramic cores for single crystal turbine engines, as their lab manager. I supervised a small team of —
Wait, wait, wait… What are single crystal turbine engines? Do you mean crystals like the kind my dad has in his mineral cabinet?
Ha! Single crystal refers to the orientation and controlled growth during casting of the nickel alloy from which the [turbine] blades are made.
Oh wow, ok! I think I get it! Please continue! (I didn’t get it. Please read here about “single crystal turbine engines”)
I supervised a small team of lab technicians to sample products, perform a specific set of tests, record data, monitor trends in that data, and issue certificates of analysis for all of our material sold to customers (our own foundries). My bachelors is in ceramic engineering, being almost unnecessarily specific I anticipated being an individual contributor and doing materials-related engineering tasks for them, but was quickly made the lab manager; someone with a technical background was needed to manage data integrity and the physical lab equipment. It was mostly paperwork.
So how did you like it?
Very quickly I learned that aerospace manufacturing, while lucrative, is soul sucking. Several of my peers worked 15 hour days because they could not / would not delegate tasks, or they were trying to compensate for the lack of work and quality of work on the second and third shifts. I interviewed with several places in an attempt to escape and something always seemed to happen, e.g. after my last round of interviews with 3M they were sued for contaminating potable water in New Jersey and all research related jobs were vaporized.
So how did you find East Fork? What is your role?
I followed East Fork on Instagram for some time and there was this specific post that really started to make me pay attention. I think it was a blog post with Amanda holding some pots and there was hair from their armpits showing or something similar. Someone online made it a point to send a letter and state how awful it was blah blah blah, but it was the response that got me, paraphrased as "we take care of our own and happy employees make a great product. If you don't like it piss off." Within the same week, I saw a video of an all staff meeting where someone introduced themselves with a baby on their hip and made the point to say, "my pronouns are she/her..." I was already working in manufacturing and had previously so this was like a beacon - what kind of workplace emphasizes their employees' individuality like that? At someone's great advice, I took a chance and sent a letter stating my interest and if EF ever needed a ceramic engineer I'd be flattered to be considered. Here I am. Had an opportunity with East Fork not panned out, I was abandoning materials engineering to pivot into data science.
When there is an issue with the raw materials, e.g. clay or glazes, it's my job to identify the cause and develop a sustainable solution. I work with the materials team, Kyle, Sara, and Daniel. Together, with Quality, we monitor the clay body and glaze performance. When our defined processes are trending within the acceptable performance limits, my job is more R&D focused! We get to design new glaze colors, try new materials, or formulate new clay bodies. Hands-on work like this is my favorite, because of the opportunity to try new, unknown things and work in a small team.
Can you tell us more about ceramic engineering?
Usually, the summary I give my parents is "high temperature materials science." A ceramic engineer designs materials systems to meet specific design criteria using inorganic materials that typically have a high temperature forming requirement. It's worth noting that ceramic engineers may work with glass, but glass is not a ceramic. Glass is vitreous, having short range atomic order, and ceramics are crystalline, having long range atomic order. Crystalline domains are why ceramics are opaque, while glasses and plastics are typically transparent; though they can also have crystalline domains. At East Fork we coat / seal the pots in a glaze, which is a glass. The ceramic body and the glaze are amazingly similar in chemistry, but the arrangement of their atoms is what makes them two different materials with different properties.
I think it's also important to differentiate between a ceramic engineer and ceramist or potter. The obvious difference is "engineer," which is to say emphasis on material selection, function, and shape in terms of defined processes and controlled manufacturing or fabrication. That sounds exactly like what a potter does as well, but one is an engineer and one is an artist by training. I am not trained in throwing, slab building, or traditional forming; the historical significance of certain ceramics; or to have an artistic sense about what I've made. My training is in designing materials systems to meet a set of criteria, e.g. maximum operating temperature, an optical property, a mechanical property, or rheology; control processes for consistency; design with fabrication in mind and end use.
Engineering materials have a higher purity or are more processed than those used by a ceramist. Ceramic engineers often sound elitist by differentiating between traditional ceramics (pots), oxide ceramics and glass, then non-oxide ceramics, with respect to (technological) importance. It's worth noting that all things we touch as humans fit into the venn diagram of "ceramic, plastic, metal, natural material, glasses, and composites," with the first three being the largest "petals" of the venn diagram. So, I studied one domain of materials science with enormous emphasis.
What are some of your interests/hobbies?
As far as hobbies go, I've had many but undergraduate and graduate school has killed 99% of them. I used to really enjoy racquetball and squash, but it's difficult to find courts away from universities. I have a bike and am building up endurance for touring and eventually the Aids Life Cycle. Recently I purchased a floor loom like a crazy person and have embraced that meditative practice.
Oh wow! A floor loom? What are you making with that?
I will be dyeing some clothes with indigo - a traditional indigo dye vat is fermented and can be maintained for years. That couples well with my interest in fermented foods and cooking. Also, since November I've been introduced to yoga and have been pleasantly surprised about how it's increased my wellness and isn't just bullshit/stretching.
What are your five favorite things? (can you also set up a scene with those things and send me a shot?)
I don't have many material things that I consider my favorites. My loom is definitely my prized possession, maybe other than my computer...two things come to mind though (cats)