As with any inventor, ideas sometimes come to John Burgess, D.D.S., professor of prosthodontics, when he least expects them.
For example, the idea for the dental bur-testing machine came to him when he had no piece of paper on which to draw the design in his head. So, Burgess grabbed a napkin and began to draw.
|Daniel Long, a machinist in the Research Machine Shop, takes a measurement while building an artificial mouth for research in the School of Dentistry. The RMS has the capacity to build the advanced equipment campus researchers and surgeons need to better do their jobs. |
He took the rough sketch of his idea to Chris Shoemaker and Daniel Long in the Research Machine Shop (RMS) in the Lyons-Harrison Building.
“You really don’t know what you’re going to get back when you take an idea for a piece of equipment to someone and it’s drawn on a napkin,” Burgess says. “When I saw the final machine they built — wow. I can’t tell you how nice it is to have a facility like that with people who are so talented and so easy to work with.”
Artists come in all shapes, sizes and forms: Musicians, writers, painters and sculptures are a few. So are machinists like Shoemaker and Long. They bring more than 45 years combined experience to the RMS, a specially outfitted facility with the capacity to build the advanced equipment needed to meet the exact standards for any researcher or surgeon.
“This is one of the best-kept secrets of UAB,” says Michael Harrington, director of operations for the Center for Biophysical Sciences & Engineering (CBSE), where the RMS Machine Shop is housed. “The shop has been quietly supporting UAB researchers for 50 years. Many researchers use the RMS for the development of instruments, and many clinicians and surgeons use them for modification of surgical tools.
“All the payload systems flown by the CBSE on the space shuttle and Interna-tional Space Station were machined here,” Harrington says. There’s been a lot of research and patents that have evolved from items we have fabricated.”
The RMS provides specialty services to a broad customer base within the university system, including radiation oncology, anesthesia, cardiology, neurology, surgery, other units in the UAB Health System, the schools of Dentistry and Engineering, Facilities Management and the print plant.
Inventions built or modified by the RMS include:
• General Laboratory Active Cryogenic ISS Experiment Refrigerator (GLACIER) for NASA
• Surgical hand tools
• High-throughput sub-microliter protein crystallization/liquid-handling system
• Integrated system for quantitative analysis of crystallization and protein-protein interactions
• Automated electroporation unit
• High-affinity biosensors
• Camera-focusing aid with backlight
• Automated sampling system for rotary bioreactors
Because of its expertise, researchers and surgeons can have any kind of tool built, from the basic (a custom hand tool) to the highly technical (custom MRI adapter with subject stabilizing device).
“We have constructed everything from experiment hardware for space-flight research to custom surgical instruments to specially configured trays and stands not readily available from vendors,” says Shoemaker, the RMS shop administrator. “Many times the reason people come see us is because they can’t buy what they want. We have the ability to make something different than anything on the market or modify something already on the market to better fit the needs of the researcher or surgeon.”
Examples of the services the RMS provides include:
• General electrical and mechanical lab-equipment repairs
• Microscope repair and modifications
• Construction and modification of lab and surgical instruments
• Plastics repair and custom fabrication
• Metal fabrication, including the welding, brazing, soldering, machining and bending of stainless steel, carbon steel, aluminum and titanium.
Shoemaker says it’s not uncommon for a researcher or surgeon to bring an idea on a piece of paper – or a napkin – and ask, “Can you make one of these?”
“They’ll leave their drawing with us or we’ll make drawings,” Shoemaker says. “Sometimes we measure and make it as we go. Sometimes they just come down here with an idea, and it’s kind of like somebody describing a suspect – you’re drawing a picture as they describe what they’re looking to have constructed.”
Whether it’s rough projections or blueprint drawings, the RMS has the flexibility to change the project as it develops.
“Many times it is a progression,” says Long. “They may not always say, ‘Yeah, that’s great,’ after it’s initially made. You have to modify it until you get exactly what they want. Our researchers are specific on exactly what they want to do. They know what they want to do, but we have to kind of bridge to get to that result.”
Dental industry think-tank
One example of that is a Dental Wear Machine project the RMS is building for Burgess.
The machine, which is 6 feet long and 3 feet high, has eight artificial mouths that duplicate the human chewing cycle. The artificial mouths will be able to cycle hot, cold and pH levels to simulate the oral environment. Researchers also will be able to vary the load that is applied to the teeth. This equipment will enable them to duplicate different clinical situations and more effectively study the wear of dental fillings used in the mouth. It should lead UAB dental researchers to develop highly efficient and precise dental materials.
This type of capability has enabled Burgess’ group to tailor itself as a think-tank for the dental industry.
Several businesses have called on Burgess for help in designing a product, and because of the RMS he’s able to assist. One manufacturer wanted to know if Burgess could help them tweak their root-canal sealer. They wanted it to expand a small amount to improve the seal of root-canal fillings but needed an apparatus constructed that could make it possible.
“They wanted something that would fit like a cork in a bottle,” Burgess says. “They wanted it to slightly expand, come up to a certain pressure and then stop. They couldn’t find anybody to do these measurements. We went to the machine shop and worked with them to design something where we can actually control the measurement of the expansion under controlled pressures. It was a great project.”
Quality of work unmatched
Burgess, who came to UAB almost four years ago, says the RMS was a big reason he wanted to be a part of the university.
“I had never had a shop where they could do prototyping,” he says. “It was a big deal to me that they were nearby because we do materials testing and develop new materials for dentistry. The fact that they are in our building is very important. It tipped the scales for me.”
Burgess says the flexibility of Shoemaker and Long makes them easy to engage. And the quality of their work, he says, is unmatched.
“Their major contract was with NASA,” Burgess says. “Therefore, quality is not an issue with these guys. Their products have tremendous quality. They can take your design, modify it and make it three times better than you ever thought it could be.”
The RMS also is available to do outside projects for other institutions and businesses. For more information visit www.cbse.uab.edu/engineer/es_so_machine_shop.html, or to talk with Shoemaker, call 934-4393.