Enhanced Research Shop Opens Doors

Facility designed to custom-make scientific tools that support cutting-edge discovery

By Roger AndersonOctober 16, 2017

From the impeccably marked safety routes to the pristine lighting, Northwestern’s renovated Research Shop conjures a sense of uniformity in a space often optimized for the unique.

One of the main objectives of the new 6,848-square-foot facility — located in room NG40 of the Technological Institute — is to enhance the “make it” culture among students, faculty, and fellows.

“We’re moving beyond a buzzword into a setting where undergraduate and graduate students can learn to use advanced instrumentation that allows them to fabricate their own projects alongside faculty who are global leaders in their respective fields,” says Phil Hockberger, assistant vice president for research. “The renovation of the Research Shop and reimagining of the Electronics Shop are part of an even bigger effort to integrate facilities and resources throughout the University.”

In spring, the MAKE Northwestern website was launched as a one-stop information hub for fabrication resources and facilities at the University. The site also serves as a portal to projects and events taking place within the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, the Segal Prototyping and Fabrication Lab, the 3D Printing and Rapid Prototyping Lab, and spaces like The Garage, The Mechatronics Lab, and Corner Makery.

The expansion and modernization of the Electronics Shop and Research Shop — comprised of Northwestern’s design and engineering shop, professional shop, and student shop — were completed in just less than a year, culminating with a ribbon cutting on October 9.

The 620-square-foot Electronics Shop — managed by Andy Ott in the Chemistry Department — now occupies dedicated space inside room FG27of Tech.

“Northwestern's decision to upgrade its machine shop and add an Electronics Shop was critical to my decision to move from Harvard to Northwestern,” says renowned physicist Gerald Gabrielse, who started at the University on September 1. “Much of modern science is enabled by instruments that can be fabricated as needed. It is exciting to be part of a University that is committed to being on the cutting edge.”

Improvements to the Research Shop include a greatly enhanced floor plan that required moving several walls; nearly $1 million of new and refurbished equipment; and safety features, such as improved sightlines across the professional and student shop, one-button emergency power shutoffs, and first responder call buttons.

“Building a student shop environment to enhance safe operation of equipment was a key part of this project,” says Katie Kollhoff, senior safety engineer at Northwestern’s Office for Research Safety. “From the wiring, to the equipment layout, to the placement of protective eyewear, student safety was considered at each step. The best part is that students not only have these physical safeguards, but also a top-notch team of experienced professionals to assist with training, brainstorming, and teaching of good machine shop practice.”

On display at the grand opening was the prototype of a safety device that could one day be in place throughout the shops. The interactive tool, the brainchild of Dan Brown, clinical professor of engineering, requires users of a specified piece of equipment to input an identification number and a fingerprint biometric. In the case of insufficient training, a yellow or red light will appear in full view of shop managers.

The project began as a collaboration among the Office for Research Safety, Risk Management, and Segal Design Institute more than three years ago and was demonstrated at the grand opening by engineering students Mike Pitorak, Gavin Brehm, and William Blackwell.

The opportunity to work with high-powered lathes and mills in the revamped student shop, managed by Salomon Rodriguez, is something new. The access is intended to allow students to build their own instruments. In addition, the newly established design shop, managed by John Bussan, provides dedicated space and computers for researchers to consult with expert staff. The combination of the in-house design, machine, and electronics shops will allow researchers to move beyond the limitations of commercial products.

Among the speakers who delivered remarks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony were Jay Walsh, vice president for research; Brian Odom, physics and astronomy and faculty director of the Research Shop; Frank Lantz Research Shop operations director; Hockberger, Bussan, Rodriguez; and Ott.

“When you have the ability to make your own tools, you can control the direction of your research,” says Ott, director of Core Facilities. “Northwestern has shown a deep commitment to researchers in allowing them to pursue the science that they want rather than constraining researchers to modify their approach to the tools at hand.”

One goal of the MAKE Northwestern project is to integrate the University’s fabrication facilities to increase access to tools. Shops within the Ford Center, for instance, have expanded their services by including training for graduate students and postdocs. The revamped mission will allow these shops to develop training modules for researchers, coordinate training with the research shop, and enable access to specialty instruments such as the water jet and 3D printers.

“By creating this multischool collaborative model, we can reduce duplicative investments, help support research innovation, and provide a better training environment for students and postdocs,” says Hockberger. “The MAKE Northwestern site will expand greatly the opportunity of our students to design and build novel devices and components for their research projects. This will be a game changer for our researchers.”