Solving Lab Limitations with Engineering Design and Maker Skills
Shawn Wasserman posted on October 22, 2015 |
How basic CAD and machining skills can make you a wizard in the lab.

The Catalog vs. Making Lab Equipment with CAD and Maker Spaces

Spoering’s custom-made extrusion mount enabled an open source 3D printer to print nylon in the lab.

Spoering’s custom-made extrusion mount enabled an open-source 3D printer to print nylon in the lab.

When many researchers are faced with equipment that doesn’t meet their needs, their first instinct is to look in a catalog. This can become an expensive and inefficient endeavor, especially when existing equipment can meet the majority of the task at hand.

Consider a lab looking for a 3D printer that works with nylon. They could spend a large sum of money on an industrial printer or they could upgrade their existing open source printer. Tasks like this are where former Harvard University instructor and founder of Lab Machinist Solutions, Ryan Spoering, comes into play.

“I’m a scientist by training,” said Spoering. “For 10 years I taught at Harvard and built up my hobby in metal work. I started to connect the two things when researchers figured out what I could do. Now I’m making lab equipment full time to help scientists bridge the gap between the tools they need and what they are supplied from manufacturers. Someone with the slightest bit of CAD, design and machining knowledge is like a magician in the lab.”

Using CAD tools like 3D printers, machine shops and Siemens PLM Software’s Solid Edge, Spoering can design equipment to meet the needs of researchers. Whether researchers need something as simple as containers to stack in a lab freezer or as complicated as a new mount to house an upgraded 3D printer extruder, CAD technology and a maker space can often yield a solution.

“The researchers might have an idea for a new device that can change the way people do science but building and designing that device can be a big barrier,” said Spoering. “Your standard job shop won’t like to make this equipment from the back of a napkin, so many are forced to look in the catalogue that may or may not have the solution. Additionally, the catalogue and traditional job shops can be expensive. Therefore, the ability to make custom tools on your own is directly correlated to innovation.”

Spoering reminisced that there was a time when scientists were also makers. They made their own glassware, metal tools and mechanical equipment. But now many science programs don’t include these skills in the curriculum.

“Many universities and companies don’t even have a machine shop,” he said. “Sometimes there is a simple solution that the research team would never have imagined because they don’t have CAD or machine shop experience. It’s a different type of creativity that isn’t in the lab. Therefore, these researchers need to find makers to support their labs. They can bring ideas to life that the other researchers would never think of — creating new opportunities.”

How Solid Edge’s Flexible CAD Can Innovate in the Lab

Spoering’s custom made 3D printer extrusion mount modeled in Solid Edge.

Spoering’s custom-made 3D printer extrusion mount modeled in Solid Edge.

“Much of my life I worked on projects with a paper and pencil. Coming from that world, CAD is a wonderland,” said Spoering. “I can do mock-ups with clients and many iterations before I cut into metal or plastic.”

A lot of the ideas a scientist has for a tool will solidify better once they start to see it take shape as a CAD image or 3D-printed object, noted Spoering. This helps the client to make real decisions about their design. “You can’t do that with a napkin sketch,” he adds. “But with Solid Edge CAD I can make that print to verify the design.”

For example, take Spoering’s custom 3D printer nylon extrusion mount. The lab needed a mount that would hold together a new extruder and fan. This problem would have been difficult for the lab to solve on its own or to visualize with a sketch. But with Spoering’s design skills the team was able to innovate their 3D printer to work with nylon.

“I was extending the capability of the printer to print nylon for a higher temperature extrusion, so a new extruder was needed to be adapted onto the printer. It all had to be thoroughly custom made,” explained Spoering. “With the combination of CAD and 3DP I can dream up the design and make it. It was great to make a prototype and see if it would work. There are limitations for 3DP strength but it’s a great complement to the machine shop for rapid prototyping.”

When asked why Spoering choose Solid Edge for his CAD solutions he noted its advantages for small businesses. “I was looking for quick and easy CAD. The month by month licensing helped my small business,” he said, “Additionally, when designing in Solid Edge I was able to start designing without having a final idea of the object from the start.”

“I choose Solid Edge as it feels less idiosyncratic, and more fast and flexible thanks to the synchronous mode,” added Spoering. “If you want to base it on a sketch you can work in the parametric mode. Sometimes for me all I need is a basic five-minute sketch to get the idea across before I started working in the shop. This was much easier to do in Solid Edge.”

Tips and Tricks for CAD Design

Spoering admits that he is just starting to learn all the tricks there are to learn about CAD. “As I run into problems trying to design things I always figure out how I’m doing it wrong.”

Spoering modeling his 3D printer extrusion mount in Solid Edge.

CAD programs like Solid Edge are complicated, powerful tools and can have a long learning curve. As a result, new users might want to look into training to get them up to speed. Luckily, though, users don’t have to look far for help.

“I found Solid Edge is a nicely built piece of software with active developers. They are also very active in the user community,” expressed Spoering. “Each version has great advancements.”

However, no program is perfect and even happy users like Spoering would benefit from additional functionality. “For my work,” noted Spoering, ”I wish Solid Edge better handled mesh and STL files. Reverse engineering mesh files would be a valuable tool for Solid Edge to add.”

Nonetheless, Spoering is very impressed with Solid Edge’s ability to move between ordered and synchronous mode. “For ordered mode,” he said, “you start with a 2D sketch and 3D is built from that. In the Synchronous mode you work directly with the 3D design by pushing and pulling the object.”

“I use Synchronous a lot for design,” he added. “It is best when you don’t know where you will end up with a design. It just makes it simple to create stuff. With 2D you generally need to put more thought into your design first. Although, you can move back and forth between the two methods giving the user the flexibility to perform a task using the method that is most convenient for that task.”

Spoering also explained that when he designed the custom 3D printer extrusion mount he used synchronous modeling. “It was a complicated part,” he admitted. “It wasn’t something I would want to imagine making in a sketch. Synchronous modeling was much easier. We even 3D printed the part as it wasn’t designed to be machined with all its curves and fillets.”

Small Businesses Work with What They Have, such as Solid Edge on MAC

Spoering’s workstation setup. Is that Solid Edge on a Mac?

Spoering’s workstation setup. Is that Solid Edge on a Mac?

Spoering’s ingenuity with Solid Edge doesn’t end with his designs. In fact, it starts with his implementation method: a Mac Pro Workstation.

Using Boot Camp, Spoering has installed Windows 7 on his system, and he is impressed with how well Solid Edge works off of his Mac.

“Solid Edge isn’t typically compatible with Mac hardware but I’m a Mac person. My system isn’t new or expensive. It’s a 2008 model with an Intel chip, maxed out on RAM and a Quadro 4800 card.”

“They don’t support this set up officially but I haven’t had any issues with it,” he noted. “But I’ve found that Solid Edge and similar CAD software work smoothly in this setup.”

Like many small business, Spoering has to work on a budget. If he can run his CAD software on the instruments he already has, why buy something new? After all, his talents ensured his client didn’t need a new 3D printer, so why does he need a new computer? Just like for his customers, he built his own solution.

For small businesses on a budget, Spoering again expressed the advantage of Solid Edge’s monthly subscription options.

“With Solid Edge’s monthly subscription I was able to save money to buy capital investments like my 3D printer,” said Spoering. “Paying month by month can be useful for a small business but there is a point where it will be cheaper to buy a seat. When that happens I will shift but for now month by month is beneficial.”

The real lesson is, save the money for when you need it. Otherwise, make your own solution.

To learn more about Solid Edge’s monthly subscription, click here.

Siemens has sponsored to write this article. It has provided no editorial input. All opinions are mine. —Shawn Wasserman

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