Two Great Places for Making Just About Anything: The Duke Physics Instrument Shop and the Staff Machine Shop

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When in need of a custom-designed tissue press, a mouse-exposure chamber, an umbilical cord blood collector, photoelastic disks, or almost any other apparatus made of metal or plastic, those in the know turn to the Duke Physics Instrument Shop. “We do all types of plastic and metals works,” says manager Bernie Jelinek. “We do welding, brazing, silver soldering, and a little bit of sheet metal. We do all types of machining—milling, turning, grinding.” The Instrument Shop, located on the bottom floor of the physics building, is stocked with dozens of machines including three computer numerical controlled (CNC) 4-axis mills and a CNC lathe. Its services are available to anyone in the Duke community, local nonprofits, and others for a fee of is $63.25 per hour to design, build, and repair tools and equipment. In addition to Jelinek, the Instrument Shop is staffed by senior instrument makers Bill Peterson and Phil Lewis.

One satisfied customer is Jonathan Boreyko, a fifth-year PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. “I have published several papers that used an experimental system entirely fabricated by the Physics Shop,” he says. His most recent work required the fabrication of dozens of different copper plates, one of which needed to be resurfaced about once a week. “Bernie and the staff were always happy to do this for me immediately, even when I walked in without advance notice,” he says. “It is safe to say that I would not have been able to create my last few experimental setups without the Physics Shop.” For people who want to do the work themselves, another option is right next door: the Staff Machine Shop. In order to use the self-service Staff Machine Shop, participants must first complete a course to learn how to use the equipment, which includes drill presses, milling machines, lathes, bandsaws and more. The course is taught by the shop manager, Richard Nappi (pictured above), who says, “Modeling and designing parts and assemblies on the computer is all well and good, but I think there’s something to be said for knowing how to use a screwdriver and a hammer and wrenches. It helps people get an idea of how things are actually put together.” As a final project, participants in his class make a c-clamp. Then their DukeCard is activated so they can access the shop. Nappi is usually on hand to answer questions and make sure people are working safely. Second-year physics graduate student Bonnie Schmittberger took the class in July 2010. “It was really fun,” she says. “It was nice to be able to get my hands dirty and build things I knew I was going to be able to use in broad applications in the lab.” She says she uses the shop often to make all kinds of things, from simple objects like mounts to more complex items whose measurements need to be extremely precise. For experiments in Prof. Dan Gauthier’s lab, she repaired a portion of a laser head that uses water to cool off a crystal that tends to overheat. The nozzle she made needs to fit perfectly because even a tiny leak would ruin the laser head. “Whenever I have a question about anything I need for the lab I go to Richard,” Schmittberger says. “He’s always very helpful.” Nappi enjoys helping people solve problems and design tools for specific uses. In one case, researchers showed him a 22-second video of a piece of equipment that had been made by scientists in China and he worked with them to figure out how to make one like it. Nappi keeps a list of people who are interested in the shop class, which takes a total of 24 class hours to complete. After he’s got four people confirmed, they decide together on a schedule for class meetings. The class is free for people in the physics department. For others in the Duke community, the class costs $600, and there is a fee of $150 per year to have access to the shop. For the most part, people must pay for their own materials, although Nappi will help locate materials and order them. He says 70 to 75 people use the shop over the course of a year, including not only physicists, but also people from the Medical Center and the departments of Biomedical Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Chemistry.

See more photos here.