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Week of 21 January 2005· Vol. VIII, No. 16

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BU’s beefed-up machine shop: instrumental in science

By Tim Stoddard

Mike McKenna, director of the Scientific Instrument Facility (right), fine-tunes an aluminum component for a mass spectrometer that Peter O’Connor, a MED research assistant professor of biochemistry, is building. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


Mike McKenna, director of the Scientific Instrument Facility (right), fine-tunes an aluminum component for a mass spectrometer that Peter O’Connor, a MED research assistant professor of biochemistry, is building. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Scientists usually walk into Mike McKenna’s office with little more than doodles drawn on napkins and good ideas they’d had in the shower. They walk away, weeks or months later, with custom-built vacuum chambers, telescopes, and various and sundry gizmos you can’t find in laboratory stockrooms or scientific catalogs.

McKenna directs the Scientific Instrument Facility (SIF), a sprawling machine shop in the basement of the Physics Research Building that produces equipment and accoutrements integral to research in physics, biology, chemistry, photonics, and medicine. While the shop is widely regarded as one of the best in Boston, McKenna says that more BU researchers could be taking advantage of its experienced staff, state-of-the-art equipment, and competitive rates. On January 26 and 27, McKenna will host an open house in the SIF, leading tours of the facility’s equipment and advising newcomers on how to turn their good ideas into tangible products.

Since becoming SIF director a year ago, McKenna has been replacing outdated machines and software in the lab with cutting-edge equipment. He’s also been pushing the veteran staff to pick up the newest tools of the trade: computerized numerical control (CNC) machines that streamline a cumbersome job and yield more accurate products. The shop’s new CNC machines are essentially miniature factories: following electronic instructions, they cut, drill, grind, and lathe a product in a fraction of the time it takes to craft it manually. “We’re in the process of getting our machinists more familiar with today’s technologies,” says McKenna, “whereas I think many other universities’ shops are staying status quo. My feeling is that we should always be looking forward — it’s a no-machinist-left-behind policy.”

Still, there’s no substitute for experience and craft when it comes to sculpting delicate and sensitive instruments out of blocks of aluminum, titanium, and other materials. Lee Roberts, a CAS professor of physics, has worked closely with the SIF machinists over the past five years to build about $1 million worth of equipment for a superconducting magnet at the Brookhaven National Laboratories. “The SIF played an important role in our building the instrument on cost and on time,” he says. “The Brookhaven engineers loved sending work here to SIF because it was always done right. This is one of the best facilities at a university in this country. I’ve actually had somebody outside of BU try to recruit me to their new experiment because they wanted access to our facility.” He politely declined the invitation.

Closer to the work

Originally designed as a shop for the CAS physics department, the SIF now serves all departments on BU’s campuses. Chemists have come in asking for unusual test-tube holders, astronomers have commissioned telescopes, and a marine biologist has worked with the machinists to build a robot lobster that mimics the real crustacean’s ability to track odors underwater.

There are many reasons for choosing the SIF over an outside shop, McKenna says, not the least of which is cost. Rates for BU faculty and staff are a third of those at outside vendors. More important, however, the SIF staff help clients convert ideas into doable designs and can accommodate evolving needs along the way.

“We’re much closer to the work than the outside shops are,” says Bob Kingsland, an SIF welder and machinist. “If you deal with a commercial shop, you’re never going to see the guy who’s actually making the part. There are too many layers of interference. This is so much more direct, and that’s what’s nice about it.”

That level of collaboration is attractive to researchers such as Peter O’Connor, a MED research assistant professor of biochemistry. “Commercial machine shops are usually lower quality,” he says, “and they certainly don’t have guys who you can talk to about building certain parts. I’ve gone down to the SIF countless times and just sat with the guys and said, ‘This is roughly what I want to make. Can you suggest how I could actually build it?’”

O’Connor, who is assistant director of MED’s mass spectrometry resource, has been using the SIF to design mass spectrometers, devices used to measure the masses of small particles. He and his colleagues have been pushing the envelope in mass spectrometry over the past six years, designing more accurate instruments that are increasingly needed in the field of proteomics, which is the study of how proteins change within cells.

McKenna and his staff seem to thrive on challenging and quirky commissions. When a MED researcher recently approached McKenna about building headphones, the SIF director initially envisioned a pair of Bose noise-reducing earphones (McKenna previously directed the model shop at Bose Corporation in Framingham, Mass.). “It turns out the researcher wants to put these headphones into a rat’s brain,” he says, holding up a quarter-inch-long prototype on his desk. It consists of two plastic plates held together by three tiny brass screws.

When asked if he’ll be able to build the requested instrument, he shrugs. “We’re machinists, not magicians, but we can do a lot of things.”

For more information or to register for a tour during the open house, visit http://machineshop.bu.edu.


21 January 2005
Boston University
Office of University Relations