25 May 2012

State recognizes MagLab problem solvers

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When confronted with a conundrum, MagLab employees often get creative — and this year, that strategy earned three of them kudos from the state of Florida. The inventive winners of the 2012 Davis Productivity Award are (drum roll, please): Scott Bole, a mechanical engineer; Lee Marks, a research engineer; and John Kynoch, the lab’s facility director.

Lee Marks and Scott Bole with the machine they invented.Lee Marks (left) and Scott Bole with the machine they invented.Bole’s and Marks’ creative work also earned them a 2012 Jeffrey Gabor Superior Accomplishment Award. Florida State University gives the Gabor award, which comes with a $500 savings bond, to exemplary employees.

“Scott and Lee never cease to impress,” said Mark Bird, director of the lab’s Magnet Science & Technology. “They’re constantly developing new and excellent ideas and implementing them, ultimately saving everyone some time and money. … That kind of creative thinking is really the hallmark of the entire magnet science team, and I’m confident we’ll have equally qualified candidates for next year’s competition.”

The Davis award recognizes state employees whose work increases productivity and promotes innovation. Kynoch was singled out for his ingenious solution of how to house one of the world’s most powerful and sensitive microscopes. Bole and Marks created a new machine to solve a labor-intensive task — and they did it on the sly.

Dream Machine

Down in the lab’s coil-winding room, where engineers and technicians build parts for state-of-the-art magnets, a technician once spent hours winding a 1-inch-wide insulating tape around a cable of superconducting wire. It was a slow, tedious task which required all other work in the area to stop until a 40-foot length of it had been wound with tape.

Lee Marks’ conceptual drawing led to Scott Bole’s AutoCAD design.Lee Marks’ conceptual drawing (left) led to Scott Bole’s AutoCAD design (right) of a machine that winds tape around superconducting cable.Everyone wished they could get a machine to do the work but “there wasn’t a machine out there that really did what we wanted,” said Marks, who has been at the lab for 15 years. “So I came up with an idea and scribbled out something.”

Marks showed his drawings — penciled onto the back of a couple of sheets of graph paper — to Bole.

“Lee kept putting the bug in my ear: ‘We got to do something about this,’” said Bole, who has worked at the lab for 19 years. “He was kind of the spearhead of the whole thing, and I was kind of the enabler. I just did the mechanics: figured out the sizes of everything, the nuts and bolts stuff.”

Over the stretch of four to five months, Scott designed a machine — weighing about 100 pounds and powered by a small DC motor — to wind the insulating tape around the cable. Then they took it out for a trial run.

“We just turned the switch on and it worked,” Bole said. “I’ve designed a lot of rotating machinery in my career, and I don’t know of any other machine that I’ve designed that we just flipped the switch and it worked. There’s always some little glitch. So that was pretty amazing.”

But here’s the whipped cream on this already sweet story.

“The best part about this whole job is that we did it in skunk works mode,” Bole said.

Skunk works whaaat?

“That means you’re doing it in secret; you don’t tell anybody, you just show up one day and say, ‘Look what we got!’ We weren’t given the job to do this, we just saw the need and in our spare time, we put this thing together.”

Room with a Micro View

Kynoch’s award came out of a job he was given to do, and it was a whopper: Figure out how to house a $3.2-million cutting-edge atomic-resolution microscope that allows researchers to see individual atoms. Weighing in at about 5,000 pounds, it magnifies an object up to 100 million times its actual size.

John Kynoch.John Kynoch.The catch is that this super powerful tool is also super sensitive to sound, vibration, temperature and magnetic fields. Talking near the microscope can affect its readings, as can vibrations from machinery. Even a subtle temperature change — one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit! — can affect it.

“Everyone was very nervous that, if the room wasn’t just right, the microscope wasn’t going to work,” said Kynoch, who has worked at the lab for 14 years.

So what to do?

Kynoch didn’t have the option to do what other facilities with similar microscopes do: Build a separate building in a remote area. So he considered another concept: Build a room within a room.

The biggest challenge, he said, was “taking a set of specifications that were very, very technical for vibration, noise, magnetic fields and temperature and turning that into an actual structure that’s part of a building.”

The resulting room, with its windowless, subdued lighting and pin-drop quiet, feels like a high-tech sanctuary.

Kynoch is quick to say that many people were involved in brainstorming how best to build the room. But, said scientist Yan Xin, who spends much of her time using the microscope, “without John, I don’t know what we would have done. He was the crucial person.”

The Davis Productivity Award is co-sponsored by Florida TaxWatch, the Florida Council of 100 and the state of Florida. Winners will be honored at a banquet in June.