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Machine Dreams

BU’s machine shop builds, well, anything

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Bob Fazio, senior experimental machinist at BU's Scientific Instrument Facility. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Heitor Mourato loves the smell of a machine shop. The metallic bite of copper mingled with the pungent scent of scorched iron and motor oil somehow kicks his imagination into gear. “Some people like the smell of the ocean,” he says. “I prefer steel and aluminum.”

Mourato is the director of Boston University’s Scientific Instrument Facility (SIF), a sprawling, 10,500-square-foot shop in the basement of the Physics Research Building. With its team of six expert machinists, the facility produces equipment, machine parts, and other accoutrements required for research in physics, biology, chemistry, photonics, astronomy, and medicine.

In contrast to the quiet corridors on the floors above, the physics shop, as it is commonly called, positively hums. As the machinists work, wearing goggles and blue lab coats, a classic rock radio station plays the Doors or the Bee Gees over the constant thrum of the shop’s ventilation system. The din is outdone by frequent blasts from an air hose.

Established in 1987, the physics shop serves all departments on both BU campuses. Its cutting-edge equipment — machines that cut, saw, drill, grind, and lathe — rivals that of most commercial shops. Customer requests have ranged from plastic test-tube holders to the hardware for spacecraft telescopes.

Mourato’s favorite project was a strange gadget commissioned by Sargent College researchers studying infant behavior. “I called it a baby kicker,” he says. “There are two pedals attached to a mobile, and every time the baby kicks the pedals, the mobile spins and plays music.”

He’s partial to any project that involves music. Recently, School of Management students working on a project asked him to design a soap canister that plays a tune every time someone pumps the dispenser. The music plays for about 20 seconds — the amount of time it takes to kill bacteria. The idea, he says, is to encourage children to wash their hands thoroughly.

The greatest benefit of working with the SIF — its resourcefulness — brings about the staff’s greatest challenge. Customers generally come to Mourato’s office with brilliant ideas, but few details. “Most of the time, they’ll have vague sketches drawn on scrap paper,” he says. “And it’s our job to take that idea and make it into a viable piece of research equipment.” Scientists engaged in new research need new and often undreamt-of machines, requiring “equipment that isn’t found in any laboratory stockroom or catalog.”

Welder and machinist Bob Kingsland is teaching a graduate course in designing and drafting. “If we expose students to the way a machine shop works,” he says, “they’ll learn how to manage their grant money more effectively and get the hardware they need for realistic prices.”

“We’re learning how to annotate mechanical drawings and define dimensions so there will be fewer back-and-forth questions,” says Quinn Sykes, manager of the Coit Observatory at the College of Arts and Sciences, who is taking the course. And Paul Jung, a mechanical engineer at the Center for Space Physics, adds, “I’m finally beginning to understand what these guys go through to get things made for us.”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Machine Dreams

  • Anonymous on 03.13.2008 at 8:03 am

    Re: Machine Dreams

    Great article. It’s nice to read about the people and departments who don’t often get a lot of attention, but whose behind-the-scenes work is critical to advancing our academic and research programs.

  • Erik on 03.13.2008 at 2:02 pm

    Wonderful Resource!

    I had no idea we had such a resourceful and talented machine shop. It’s fantastic that courses are taught in there, super advanced shop classes.

    I’m interested!

  • Anonymous on 03.13.2009 at 12:24 pm

    Great Minds

    Hi, I really admirer people that can make a difference for the average person in their day-to-day activities. Due to today’s society and ever so fast changing world, these types of shops are needed to progress. In all my meetings with Heitor, he still fascinates me. He magically always finds the answer. Mark my words, some day he will come up with a big one in that shop. I wish them all the best, and keep up with the “GREAT WORK”. Sincerely, Tass

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