Bringing Designs to Life

By Robert C. Jones, Jr.

Bringing Designs to Life

By Robert C. Jones, Jr.
Complex schematics for everything from diabetes research to osteoarthritis studies take shape inside the College of Engineering’s high-tech Machine Shop.

It wasn’t as simple as flipping through the pages of a catalog and placing an order.

Much like scientist and inventor H.G. Wells in the movie The Time Machine, Lukas Jaworski had designed a first-of-its-kind device and needed to build it from scratch. So the biomedical engineering graduate student turned to the one place he knew could help—a high-tech machining facility on the first floor of the University of Miami’s McArthur Engineering Annex.

There, using Jaworski’s computer-generated schematics, technicians helped him construct the special bioreactor he designed for studying intervertebral discs that serve as shock absorbers in the human spine.

Chalk up another successful fabrication project for the College of Engineering’s 3,000-square-foot Machine Shop, where skilled machinists take the conceptual designs of UM researchers and turn them into reality.

From a phantom gauge that measures radiation, to equipment used with physical therapy patients, to a microinjection chamber for transplanting islet cells, the facility has built every kind of gadget and gizmo imaginable.

“I like to say we exist for the University community at large,” said Angel Morciego, the facility’s veteran machinist, noting that researchers from the Coral Gables, medical, and marine campuses all regularly seek the assistance of his technicians for building their inventions.

“It’s easy for researchers to conceptualize something, but can it really be built the way they want it? That’s where we come into play,” Morciego explained. “We try to make their designs functional, feasible, and user friendly. Sometimes we have to change their designs and the way they think certain things have to work. And they’re glad to accept constructive criticism.”

With vertical milling machines, drill presses, radial arm drills, computerized milling and lathe machines, and a welding and wood section, the shop can handle just about any job—a fact biomedical engineering student Jaworski was well aware of when he walked in with his bioreactor design. Because he already had some knowledge of machining, the shop’s technicians allowed him to perform some of the basic operations in building his bioreactor, but they took the lead in fabricating the more advanced parts of his device, which features a linear actuator that can apply either static or dynamic loads to intervertebral discs to simulate walking. His research could eventually help people with lower back pain, which, he said, “generally correlates with disc degeneration.”

Sometimes it’s not a new device at all that Morciego’s team has to build, but a modification of an existing piece of equipment, like the conductivity chamber Kelsey Kleinhans adapted for her research on knee meniscus tissue. Kleinhans redesigned a chamber previously used by her mentor, and last March the Machine Shop built two versions of the instrument for her—one that confines tissue, allowing Kleinhans to insert electrodes on both ends of the chamber to measure the electrical resistance across tissue, and the other into which she pours a high-glucose solution to measure how much sugar diffuses through tissue samples.

“They both work flawlessly,” said Kleinhans, noting that without the shop, her research would have stalled. “Eventually, we would like the research to move toward figuring out how osteoarthritis affects knee meniscus tissue and how it’s related to degenerative tissue versus healthy tissue.”

Within a few months of starting at the Miller School of Medicine’s Diabetes Research Institute in 2007, assistant professor Midhat Abdulreda realized that one of the existing tools the institute used for transplanting pancreatic islet cells in lab specimens needed to be improved.

“The prototype already existed, and several revisions of the prototype were built over the years at the machine shop on the medical campus,” Abdulreda explained. But that shop eventually closed down when the employee who operated it retired, leaving Abdulreda without a source to make the custom parts he needed to upgrade the device for transplanting islets.

Morciego and his team saved the day. Not long after learning about the shop, Abdulreda met with Morciego, explaining to the machinist what he needed, which was essentially for the shop to fabricate custom parts for which Abdulreda already had a blueprint. Still, Morciego went above and beyond, using computer-aided design (CAD) to not only make the slight modifications but also to improve the function of the device.

Such a close working relationship with researchers is what sets the College of Engineering’s Machine Shop apart, said Morciego. “Outside shops won’t sit and spend four hours with a researcher or grad student like we do, detailing their print and trying to understand what they’re really trying to achieve,” said Morciego. “We nurture the thought process and challenge them to think outside the box.”

Morciego, who completed a four-year apprenticeship in machining in the early 1980s, has worked at the facility since 1993. Prior to that year, students were not allowed to work in the shop.

“There was only one machinist, who produced what we call lab specimens, destructive test pieces used by students to conduct experiments,” said Morciego. “But when I came to UM we had a game plan; we wanted to create an educational environment. Much of the industry was complaining that their green graduates were book smart but couldn’t work with their hands. They could draw beautifully, but they had no idea how to build it.”

The phasing out of machine shop classes in high schools across the country probably has something to do with that, Morciego believes. But whatever the case, the industry began to look to colleges and universities to train engineering students in design fabrication. So the Machine Shop opened its doors to freshmen engineering students, providing intense training on lathe and milling machine techniques, measuring tools, and how to read and interpret prints.

On one particular day in late November, the shop was a hive of activity. Under Morciego’s guidance, a group of students took turns using a vertical milling machine to remove metal fragments from a puzzle piece that will be mounted onto a unit created by their mechanical engineering professor. Any less than the thickness of a sheet of paper, and the fixture wouldn’t work. “A plus or minus tolerance of that much can make or break a design,” Morciego told the students, holding the tips of his thumb and index finger only millimeters apart to drive home the point of just how precise they needed to be in their cutting.

In another section of the shop, mechanical and aerospace engineering majors Alex Cunnane and Colin Ruane worked on their senior design project—a metal beach chair that converts into a hammock. At a worktable, a group of freshmen started building a mousetrap car, using CDs and DVDs for the wheels. And in another area of the shop, Jeremiah Truesdell, a sophomore majoring in mechanical and aerospace engineering, worked on a rocket that he and his fellow members of the UM Hybrid Rocket Club plan to enter in a competition in North Florida next spring. “We’d like to go 3,000 feet or higher,” he said of the elevation goal for their rocket.

Morciego believes he is witnessing a change in students’ attitudes toward machining. “I’m seeing a return to basics,” he said. “Theoretical concepts on CAD is here to stay, but I’m seeing more and more students saying, ‘Hey, I want to get my hands dirty. I want to get in there and build something, whether it’s right or wrong.”