“…the world is, indeed, filled with a number of things… not only the wondrous creatures of the sea, but the marvelous hand and machine tools, and the stupendous assortment of plastic materials (both natural and manmade) available, as our own rich heritage from nature and from man’s creativity…”
– Dr. Zach Arnold, paleobiologist and inventor
Bioinstruments are tools, they’re sources of frustration, they’re lifesavers, but one thing they’re not is alive.
Truly understanding a nonliving thing can be a real change for someone with a biologist’s training. Our interaction with the organisms or cells we study is usually a dynamic process of discovery and give and take, and concentrating on a pile of inanimate objects may seem much less appealing.
Machines and tools are designed things that don’t react to you in the same way an organism does. To many biologists, they can seem impenetrable and dull at the same time.
If you want to succeed as a bioinstrumentation specialist, though, I believe that you need to think of the world of created things as a rich ecosystem to explore. Like Dr. Arnold, I have become fascinated by how devices work, and the different kinds of materials you can use to make them.
In my particular case, I was charmed senseless by microcontrollers. It’s very satisfying to be able to tell a machine to react a certain way in a given situation, and to have it actually listen to you (Try that with your experimental organism sometime.)
Even if your role in the bioinstrumentation business is more likely to be in marketing, you should still learn to be passionate about the thingiverse. A good manufacturing rep, and I know several, understands the intimate details of how their company’s technology operates.
If a certain kind of plastic was used in a critical place, they know why. If their machine is vulnerable to a certain kind of malfunction, they know that, and know how to help their customers avoid it. If the rep is very good, he will pass information on customer field testing back to the engineering team for design improvements.
So, how do you begin learning about this new ecosystem? If you’re interested in toolbuilding, but aren’t actually trained as an engineer or a mechanic (I’m not), probably the best way is in alternating chunks of instruction and hands-on experimentation.
Luckily, there are lots of resources that help you do exactly that. Here’s a few of my favorite beginner-accessible technologies: if you have others you like, please send them along to me at [email protected] and I’ll share them in a future column. I’m not covering possibilities such as laser cutting, photo-etching, and lathe work, but you should keep them in mind as well – sometimes, they are what you need.
Embedded computing: If you want your device to light up and do interesting things when you press a button, you’ll need to dive into embedded computing. If you don’t have any previous experience with circuits or microcontrollers, I think the smartest thing to do is to buy one of the “starter kits” for the Arduino, or a similar hobbyist microcontroller. These kits include a controller board, a nice toybox of other electronic components, and a project booklet.
I began with the SparkFun Inventor’s Kit a few years ago, but kits are also available from Adafruit, Arduino, and Make. These companies also have a lot of very useful instructional material on their Websites.
Eventually, you will probably move away from these platforms and into other systems (at work, I program PIC microcontrollers in C), but if you’re a novice, these kits are a very friendly way in.
3D printing: This technology is a little spendy, but it is probably the best choice for many precisely-designed custom components. If you want to use 3D printing for your work, the best approach depends on whether you want to get involved with the process, or the product.
If you just want to create a 3D printed object to your specifications, you may not want to invest in a 3D printer just yet.
Instead, create your design and then send it to a commercial 3D printing service. (I use Shapeways, but there are several others.) This way, you can avoid the learning curve involved with the mechanics of 3D printing itself, but you also gain access to a wider variety of materials, including ceramic and metal.
This can be important for mechanical strength and also for organism-device interactions.
If you’d like to get involved in the actual process of printing, you should begin by working with someone who has a printer. Your local Makerspace, if you have one, would be a great resource, especially if they have several printers that you can compare.
There is some trial-and-error involved in doing 3D printing as well, and the choice of printer will also depend heavily on exactly what you need from your parts.
CNC milling and other subtractive methods. This is the flip side of 3D printing: carving material out rather than building it up. It does some things much better than 3D printers, such as designs including carved channels, cutouts, or drilled holes, and it’s also very nice for carving prototype circuit boards. Lower production cost and better choice of materials is also a plus.
The downside is that milling has a steep learning curve because you must learn how to use CAM software, which converts your design into a set of instructions that can be followed by the mill. Some hobbyist mills are now available with more amateur-friendly CAM packages.
It is also not cheap. Small CNC mills are available for about the same price as a 3D printer ($500-$2500). I am lucky to have an engineer friend with CNC milling experience, so I have my own mill, but you may want to work with your local Makerspace. It’s also possible to have contract milling work done.
A more accessible alternative for a scientist-inventor is the computer-controlled blade cutters that are sold in craft stores for scrapbooking hobbyists. They can be an excellent, cheap substitute for CNC mills on thin materials, and the software is very easy to learn.
I actually use one professionally to cut thin plastic and silicone parts for our machine prototypes. Even our resident engineers think it’s a pretty useful machine, and it has already paid for itself several times over. Crafter’s die-cutting machines are also surprisingly useful if you need to make a lot of the same part.
Casting: This doesn’t get as much press as the flashier new technologies, but it can be surprisingly useful and cost-effective, especially if combined with 3D printing to make the initial form.
I’m especially impressed with some of the high-strength casting epoxies, which can stand an astonishing amount of pressure, and some of the food-grade silicone putties (nice for surfaces that will be in contact with organisms). I buy my supplies from Smooth-On, but there are other vendors too.
Finally, there is a book on mechanics that I refer to often: Britt Rorabaugh’s Mechanical Devices for the Electronics Experimenter. It’s a readable but comprehensive tutorial on how things like solenoids, and gear trains, and cams actually work. It’s no substitute for an engineering degree, but it is an excellent first step for “getting” mechanical devices at a deeper level.
Or, you could take a look at all of these techniques at once. If you’re in the Northeastern US and you’re thinking about becoming a toolbuilder, you should try to attend the World Maker Faire in Queens, NY on September 20 and 21.
Not only is it an outrageous amount of fun, I defy you to be bored, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity to connect with other people who are using technology in interesting ways. One of the most memorable presentations from last year was about the challenges of 3D printing in space. I will be giving a talk this year, so please stop by if you’d like to connect in person.
The Faire is also a beginner-friendly guided tour of the thingiverse. You’ll probably find out about new equipment or methods you hadn’t even considered.
There are also free workshops that will teach you to solder or to work with 3D printers, and literally thousands of people who would like nothing better than to show you how to do something new. If you don’t know where to start, this is a good place.