Objective: Build Anything

MIT Lincoln Laboratory series teaches fabrication basics

A near-capacity crowd attends every seminar in the Build Anything series held in MIT Lincoln Laboratory's classroom-style conference room. The attendees range from newer staff like Alexander Pina, an engineer in the Rapid Prototyping Group, who is discovering the "multitude of options that we have in house," to experienced Laboratory researchers like Andrew Siegel of the Advanced Electro-optical Systems Group, who "wanted to learn more about the capabilities of the latest fabrication technologies."

Class-1000 clean roomThe Laboratory has class-1000 clean rooms for optical assembly and test. The test set above is used for laser communications efforts.

Pina and Siegel's reasons for attending the sessions represent the prime motivations behind the Build Anything course developed by members of the Laboratory's Engineering Division and taught by Laboratory staff and select experts from outside, such as Dr. Andrew "Zoz" Brooks previously of MIT's Media Lab. "We wanted to build awareness amongst the staff that Lincoln Laboratory has the capability to build all kinds of complex hardware. New staff might not be aware of what we can do and where to get help; veteran staff may be curious about how things are being manufactured now," says James Ingraham, associate leader of the Engineering Division's Rapid Prototyping Group and one of the course organizers. "We hope that the course will open up the design space for people. By knowing how the machines work and what's currently available, the engineers may discover they can design more complex hardware than they originally thought."

And, that is what Pina found out: "Without this course, I would have never thought that Lincoln Laboratory had capabilities that could fit some very demanding needs."

Melissa Spencer of the Laser Technology and Applications Group also appreciates knowing what is possible. "My job involves designing, building, and aligning optical systems. We don't always have a mount for a particular optical component or a riser block of the right height. Sometimes parts don't have holes where we need them. When such problems present themselves, you can either make do with what you have, or design something better. I have traditionally taken the first approach, but I decided to attend the Build Anything classes so that I could do the latter."

Another goal of the series is to introduce researchers to fabrication techniques that may decrease development times or may offer more cost-effective solutions. For example, additive fabrication, a production method in which components are built up from layers of metal powders fused together, is an alternative to machining from a solid block of material. If this technique is best suited to a project, the Laboratory will work with outside vendors to have parts additively fabricated. "This is a faster method. It could be used for a test sample to determine if the design is good before spending on the real, and expensive, part," says Ingraham. "The additives are getting closer to regular machining," he added.

Vacuum chamber


The Environmental Test Laboratory supports both small, rapid development efforts and large-system projects. The thermal-vacuum chamber on the left is used to test the limits of high-altitude and satellite hardware. The shakers shown below are for vibration and shock-response testing.
Shakers for vibration testing  

Anthony Sharon, the Laboratory's Assistant Director for Operations, says that the course brings multiple benefits. "The Laboratory is in the midst of a major recapitalization of its engineering assets. The Build Anything course comes at a perfect time to acquaint staff with our new capabilities and processes. This will help improve our design and innovation practices and our support to sponsors."

From the early sessions, Siegel has already discovered ways to modify his designs. "While most of my projects are electronic in nature, occasionally I need to have a metal housing or an optical fixture custom fabricated. Taking these courses allowed me to better understand what issues matter most during fabrication. For example, while it's easy for me to sketch up a metal housing with square inner corners, I learned that the amount of machining labor required to form these sharp corners can triple the cost of the chassis! Now that I understand that it's much cheaper to allow radiusing on all internal dimensions, I will include this on my future drawings to save both time and money."

Spencer has had a similar reaction after taking the first set of classes on mechanical design. "I didn’t want to confine myself to building systems using only the parts that are commercially available. The course has given me a much clearer view of what is possible, what is easy, and what is difficult to produce, and has allowed me to design parts with this in mind."

Brian Languirand, leader of the Fabrication Engineering Group and an instructor for two of the sessions, has seen a change in the designs being developed by technical staff. "Staff had been designing around traditional fabrication capabilities. They shied away from design requiring state-of-the-art techniques because they were not aware we had those capabilities. Now staff who took the course are not only are taking advantage of new capabilities, but they are bringing other engineers down to see what we do. This cross-pollination happened very quickly."

The Laboratory's machine shop is capable of precision machining of both intricate and large-scale parts. Shown here is a five-axis, computer-controlled milling machine used in fabricating parts.

Each three-hour Build Anything class is structured into two segments—a classroom presentation and a demonstration in a manufacturing shop. "I design a class on the fabrication of a specific component and explain the different methods of building it. Then we go to the lab and build it," says Dmitry Tolpin, who conducted two classes on mechanical fabrication techniques. Tolpin adds that the demonstrations in the shop gave students a better understanding of the processes.

For this first course, instructors put in many hours to distill what they do into 60 to 70 charts, but the effort rewarded the instructors as well as the attendees. "During the research for the course, I learned a lot," says Roger Maurais, who taught the session on electronic assembly. "And, as you look for the correct phrases for conveying the material to those who don't know it, you end up understanding it better yourself."
Build Anything began in August with an overview of fabrication engineering. The subsequent four classes covered elements of mechanical fabrication and design. Three classes on electronics followed.

In late January, Brooks, who earned his doctorate in electrical engineering at MIT and was a cohost, known as Dr. Robot, of the Discovery Channel's show Prototype This!, conducted a session on rapid prototyping. Ingraham says that Brooks spoke on the latest capabilities that allow parts to be built directly from computer-aided design (CAD) models in materials from plastics to steel. "Zoz has a wide hands-on background in these techniques, built upon his work in robotics at the MIT Media Lab, as well as his work on Prototype This! The class saw machines working to build an underwater digital-camera housing which Zoz had designed."

Build Anything continued in February with a class on cables and harnesses, and in March the concluding session used a Laboratory case study to illustrate the assembly, integration, and "testability" of systems.

The Build Anything series complements the focus Lincoln Laboratory has on building prototypes. This capability of turning concepts into working models is what helps make the Laboratory unique among federally funded research and development centers. A current emphasis is on turning concepts into operational prototypes in shorter time frames, so the lessons learned about faster or better ways to design components increase researchers' ability to rapidly prototype and field test a technology.

Jim Kelly, associate leader of the Fabrication Engineering Group, says that the Engineering Division is upgrading its facilities to respond to the demand for rapid fabrication of unique or complex components. "Once we have completed the upgrades, the combination of capabilities we'll have will allow us to turn out components quickly with exceptional quality. This combination is as good or better than anything I’ve seen elsewhere."

The series has also proved very useful to staff in the Safety and Mission Assurance Office, who work with researchers to minimize risks to the success of large-scale hardware programs. Says Marie-Christine Zolcinski-Couet, quality manager in the Safety and Mission Assurance Office, "Understanding how things are being done allows me to understand what can be achievable in the context of manufacturability in order to ensure that the engineers do not request the unachievable. It also gives me a better feel for what steps a particular manufacturing process must take in order to produce repeatable and accurate results."

Keith Henderlong, an integration engineer in the Safety and Mission Assurance Office, feels the classes have "given me the knowledge base to better interact with unit engineers and utilize the vast capabilities that the Engineering Division can offer to any program."

Ingraham says that there are no plans for a "sequel" to Build Anything, though he foresees the series being repeated every other year or so. Kelly notes that a repeat course will mean a revised course as technology changes so rapidly. In the meantime, all Laboratory staff may access videos of the sessions and the accompanying charts, both of which are posted to the Laboratory's internal website soon after each session.

Posted April 2010

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