Heavy Metal Meets World-Class Research

World-class research requires some of the most specialized parts in the world. Who makes the thingamabobs and whatchamacallits needed to make Stanford experiments fly? On May 10, Stanford Report visited a workshop in the basement of the Varian Physics Building to meet the highly skilled machinists who turn the sketches of professors and grad students into the doohickeys of discovery. Welcome to the Machine Shop.

"We can help you and service your needs and make anything that can't be bought off the shelf in metal and plastic," said supervisor Karlheinz Merkle, whose machine shop serves all departments on campus, not just Physics. "We meet special needs, do one-of-a kind orders."

Merkle, who recently won a Dean's Staff Award from the School of Humanities and Sciences, leads a band of four precision machinists who complete about 600 jobs annually. He started in 1982 as a machinist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and took over as supervisor of the Varian machine shop in 1999 after the retirement of Wolfgang Jung, who for 26 years fabricated equipment for faculty and taught fabrication to students.

The machinists help researchers design custom equipment, repair existing equipment or craft inexpensive components when the offerings in catalogs are priced so high that they threaten research progress. They turn ideas into designs and, later, assembled products. Operating computer numerically controlled (CNC) mills and lathes, they produce shapes not possible using conventional machining methods.

The widgets they wangle range from tools to implant retinal chips for ophthalmologists Harvey Fishman and Daniel Palanker to components for atomic, molecular and optical experiments for physicist Mark Kasevich to parts for the South Pole experiments of observational cosmologist Sarah Church.

The machinists aim to please both researcher and subject. For a study of neuromuscular function in children, they produced a device for measuring muscle tension in a child's arm. It had parts that slid back and forth, up and down, at certain angles. But when the researcher reported that children thought the device looked scary, the machinists had the components electroplated to make them bright orange, purple and blue. The device then looked like a toy.

Student machinists

Many scientists need machinists, but they also need basic machining know-how themselves. To train experimentalists in essential skills, Merkle's men maintain and supervise a student machine shop open to anyone willing to complete a six-week course. This year, 54 students—undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and professors—enrolled for hands-on instruction in the whistle-clean facility.

On the morning of Stanford Report's visit, Mehmet Solyali, laboratory machinist specialist and shop course instructor, issued a safety quiz with questions including "What hazards exist from coolants, oils and solvents?" (Answer: They may cause skin rashes or infections) and "Describe at least two compressed air hazards" (Compressed air can propel chips through the air, implant dirt into skin and possibly injure eardrums).

After the quiz, Solyali showed students how to operate a lathe, a machine that shapes a piece of wood, metal or other material by rotating it rapidly along an axis while pressing it against a fixed cutting or abrading tool. Lathes give old-fashioned furniture their curvy legs.

The lathing workshop was geared—no pun intended—to produce a tool bit. Students started with a sketch and ended up with a vise stop.

While the students all said they enjoyed the chance to work with their hands, they had different motivations for taking the class. Physics undergraduates Allison Lyon and Cassandra Armstead-Williams will be doing summer research projects in the laboratory of Nobel Prize-winning Professor Doug Osheroff and at the Stanford Picosecond Free Electron Laser Center, respectively, and needed machining skills to make special equipment.

Kimberley Kelsey, a graduate student in the lab of Jonathan Stebbins, a professor of geological and environmental sciences, wanted to learn to make high-pressure samples in a multi-anvil apparatus. She's studying glasses formed under high pressure deep underground to better understand the Earth's mantle. "It's hard to get a piece of mantle melt to study," said Kelsey. "Its easier to make your own."

Sara Zhao, Alvin Barlian and Matthew Beasley—all graduate students in the lab of Assistant Professor Beth Pruitt—wanted to make, set up and test the tiny components that compose micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS). Similarly, applied physics graduate student Jason Randel in the lab of Assistant Professor Hari Manoharan is building scanning tunneling microscopes. "Anytime we need custom parts," he said, "we can come and do it ourselves."

Tradesmen find stability

Before coming to Stanford seven years ago, shop instructor Solyali had machined for a decade for giants in the medical devices and computer industries. But the companies he worked for eventually left pricey Silicon Valley or offshored their machining.

"The trade [in the United States] is deteriorating due to offshoring," said Solyali, who learned machining at a trade school in his native Cyprus. Research is one place where job security exists for machinists, he said, as the projects cannot be easily outsourced. Proximity to scientists helps speed the production of complex gizmos. "When [American organizations] need [precision machining], they're not going to be able to do it. Nobody's doing anything with their hands. You don't see younger people picking up this field."

While Stanford's 18-hour shop course provides important fundamentals, it doesn't come close to turning a student into a highly skilled machinist. Teacher, student, tinkerer, thinker—machinists have to be all four every day. Stanford is lucky to have the skill level evident in Merkle's group. Case in point: Professor (Research) John Lipa once requested production of a niobium part that others had told him "couldn't be done."

"Mehmet [Solyali] made it four times," lead machinist John Kirk said with the slightest smile.

It takes years to learn the craft, through apprenticeships, family businesses or trade schools. Craig Diestel's father owned a machine shop, so he got early exposure to the trade and amassed about 25 years of machining experience before joining Stanford six months ago. He examined the high-pressure vessel he had been working on for pathology researchers. "It's not repetitive, not boring," he said of research machining, comparing it to industrial machining, which often has workers producing parts for the assembly line. "It's nice to see the finished work of art," he said. "It's like a sculpture."

For Matt Chuck, the long, strange trip to becoming a laboratory machinist began in high school, where he excelled in metal shop and even taught an adult class. A guitarist, he later customized instruments for Carlos Santana, the Grateful Dead and Journey. He also made sheet-metal parts for the automotive and computer industries. Landing at Stanford was the result of getting a ticket for out-of-date vehicle registration. When Chuck told the cop who had stopped him that he was headed to a job interview at Stanford, the officer told him of another job there. When Chuck applied, the supervisor asked if he could start the next day. Fifteen years later, he's still here.

"I feel lucky to be in an environment where every day is like going to school without having to pay for it," said Chuck, who that morning was machinin

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have a review, update or anything you would like to add to this news story?

Leave your feedback