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Instrument makers give essential support to research enterprise

February 2, 2011 By David Tenenbaum

In engineering and the physical, medical and psychological sciences, equipment is often a critical barrier between a bright hypothesis and a scientific achievement. Science by definition involves doing something new, and that something new often requires a one-of-a-kind instrument. A whatchamacallit. A gadget. Anything from a specialized bolt to a self-propelled machine.

At UW–Madison, these things are made by classified staff called instrument makers, who produce an uncountable number of gizmos each year. The instrument makers, who usually work in basement shops around campus, are a pillar of campus research but are easy to overlook.

Slide show: UW’s Instrument Makers

A recent visit to five instrument shops showed some of what the instrument makers are producing: A press to squeeze cubes of biomass for bioenergy research. Custom-size bread pans for food technologists. Tiny trays to orient mouse brains during dissection. A bracket holding a magnetic coil for noninvasive brain research inside an MR machine. A plasma spray gun that could, some day, de-ice airplane wings. A cleaner-baler to recycle those giant plastic bags that now provide silo-free silage storage. A coffee-bean harvester that suspends itself from a cable on a mountainside in Colombia.

There’s more. We saw plastic boxes to expose ants to different kinds of atmospheres. An aluminum shim for samples in a high-tech genetic analysis machine. A probe for measuring the hardness of asphalt. And all manner of braces, brackets, pumps, tanks, containers, gauges, lights, sensors, detectors, screws, pipes, valves, nozzles, display cases, plates, supports and other special-purpose gizmos that allow UW–Madison’s research agenda to move forward.

“I don’t think people understand how much of their research agenda is driven by work in the shops,” says Harold Bohne, supervisor of the giant machine shop in Biological Systems Engineering. “We make anything for anybody, from small moisture probes to full-size field equipment.”

A surprising number of campus buildings — Engineering Centers, Microbiology, Chamberlin Hall and Psychology, to name a few — hold shops crammed lathes, welders, saws, drill presses, milling machines, and dusty shelves holding plates, rods and tubes made of steel, aluminum, copper and brass.

With equipment that was built last century or last week, these shops — and their expert inhabitants — have strong links to the Badger manufacturing heritage. The instrument makers include veterans of gunsmithing, clock repair, and the factories and machine shops spread across southern Wisconsin. Many are jacks of all trades, but some, like Sara Yaeger, who has a UW–Madison degree in mechanical engineering and works in the physics shop, tend to specialize; in her case, in computer-controlled machining.

The one-of-a-kind things they make occupy a surprising niche between factory product and do-it-yourself. They are perfectly constructed, but lack the shortcuts you’d find in a production item. Instead of molding a plastic part, they make it more efficiently of solid metal, using machine tools.

Although the products themselves are highly diverse, the attitude about work was consistent: The ideal project requires the instrument maker to participate in the design phase. “I like trying to come up with creative ideas,” says Andy Mulder, sole proprietor of the psychology shop. To produce a gadget that would deliver a different scent to each nostril of a person trapped in a multimillion-dollar MRI machine, he says, “I had a hard time figuring how to fasten it. They were not keen on letting me drill holes in the table, so I figured out a way to clamp it to these slots instead.”

Most of the instrument makers are primarily involved with making things; but the experts at the new microbiology building also troubleshoot a staggering range of installed equipment: giant autoclaves, shakers, incubators, glove boxes, glass washers, plumbing, drives, bearings, valves, vacuum pumps, automatic shutoffs in biosafety labs, and “too many -80 degrees Celsius coolers to count,” says Dean Maly.

Instrument makers also play teacher in the student shops found in engineering and physics. “Newly graduated engineers were going out into industry, and industry found that it had to train or retrain a lot of them in basic shop work and machining,” says David Arawinko in engineering. “They might be excellent in math, statistics and thermodynamics, but when it came down to problem solving for a specific engineering task, they were not quite good enough.

“I enjoy working with students, trying to develop their vision of what they want, and help them find the way to reach it,” says Arawinko. “Everybody think if you can draw something on a computer screen, it should magically appear on a computer-controlled machine. They don’t realize the number of choices about tools, clamping, sequences and material it takes to make sure their project will function.”

In addition to saving time and producing parts that would scarcely interest commercial machine shops, the instrument makers may also save money, says Scott Timme, who has moved to the zoology shop from the microbiology shop. At microbiology, Timme made transparent plastic boxes to contain beta radiation from a phosphorus isotope. “Fisher Scientific, the Wal-Mart of the industry, would sell these for $300 to $600 apiece. I can build 10 for $100 worth of material, so the economics plays out.”

But the instrument makers do not just offer a price advantage: “A lot of stuff in science is one-off, doing something nobody has done before, and so there are not the things out there to do that,” says Timme. “That’s where we come in.”