When most visitors tour IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, an hour north of New York City, they are often shown the wall of Fellows, a portrait gallery of every IBM researcher who has earned the company’s highest technical rank, IBM Fellow, since the program started in 1963. But in another part of the building tucked away from view is another wall of portraits. While they are not IBM Fellows in the formal sense, they’re a tight-knit group of fellows all the same, who literally build the nuts and bolts of IBM Research. They are known as the model makers; and their labor and expertise often results in the first prototypes of many a future device and technology.
The model shop at IBM Research is a cross between a mechanic’s garage, a draftsman’s studio and a makerspace. The model makers all wear a uniform of blue fire-resistant lab coats and protective eyewear. The shop is full of lathes, milling machines, drill presses, saws, wire EDM machines, 3D printers, and more. And a yellow tape barrier snakes along the floor to keep the few visitors who do find the space from getting too close to hulking machines that spray metal chips and spark fire.
Alan Morrison who oversees the model shop and has been with IBM Research for 25 years said that “we don’t just take on a job or make a part. We take on a researcher’s project and embed ourselves in it so we can do what we can to bring something to life or make it better.”
During the span of a project’s life, model maker and scientist work side by side to discuss progress, changes, and repairs; and more often than not the same model maker will be called in to update or fix a machine or part they built – even decades later. The model makers are an essential part of the research process. As Alan pointed out, “every inventor needs someone to help build their idea.”
A napkin sketch will do
There is no typical day in the model shop, but at any given time there are a dozen or more projects going on. Many requests come through the door with no ready-made designs or blueprints. The model shop’s motto is “a napkin sketch will do!” Researchers present rough designs on cardboard paper, the back of an envelope; an engineer even photocopied a part intended to be a metal bracket to hold a quantum device, accompanied by some hand written specifications, as a starting point.
One of the more unusual designs involved a scientist who came prepared with an origami replica of a metal box he wanted the model shop to build that would house a thermal sensing device.
When he explains what he does to friends, or someone he just met at a party, Alan likes to say he works at a place where ideas and mechanical drawings get turned in to real hardware and devices.
The model shop has been in part of IBM Research since the beginning, when it was housed out of Columbia University in the 1950s.
In spite of IBM’s transformation into a cognitive solutions and cloud platform company, the model shop still has plenty of things to build. In fact with IBM researchers’ work in quantum computing, z System mainframes, medical devices, and cognitive Internet of Things (IoT), Alan points out the model shop is busier than ever.
Today, contributions of their work include supporting IBM’s quantum computing research by fixturing parts to, and installing of the dilution fridges that hold the superconducting qubit devices at temperatures within a few thousandths of a degree of absolute zero. The model shop also has a dedicated assembly team that flies out to the various research labs that are running quantum computing experiments, or any other project that needs their machining expertise, such as:
A team in Almaden, CA is working with the model shop to build the torso and physical parts for a robot project called KATE. The project involves IBM and a group of international students teaching a 6-foot robot to walk.
— IBM Research (@IBMResearch) August 4, 2016
And a team in China needed the model shop’s 3D printers to build pollution sensor housing made out of ABS plastic for the Green Horizons project. The sensors are helping Beijing and other cities around the world better-manage air pollution.
One of Alan’s favorite projects is the revival of Pong, an attentive environments robot that began out of the Almaden lab in the early 90s that was designed to track changes in a person’s face and expression so it could mimic and better relate to them. More than 10 years ago the model shop was asked to resurrect and build the robot – which was originally designed to run on Windows 3.1. The model shop finished the design and got the software running on Windows XP in 2009, and Pong became part of an exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center, featured alongside other hall of fame robots including Robby the Robot, and C-3PO. Every now and again Pong comes back to the model shop for repairs and Alan takes the delivery to Robert Meinel, the model maker, who worked on Pong more than a decade ago. They tend to its needs like an old friend.
Hobbyists at home and work
Outside of work, the model makers have hobbies that are, not surprisingly, hands-on. They were ‘makers’ before today’s DIY movement. Many of them build model aircraft, or enjoy restoring antique cars. The model shop team also organizes an annual summer outing where they go crabbing off the Hudson River; and it’s no surprise to learn that they use handmade three-sided grappling hooks to retrieve traps that break loose from the toss ropes.
Alan too has another role outside of managing the model shop. He is the lab’s fire chief (and 45-year volunteer firefighter), who runs a team and command center trained to handle site emergencies. His skills and focus on precision as a model maker have helped the fire response team deal with incidents around the lab; and the model shop built the cart that all their equipment rides on, carrying air bags, compressors, controller devices and other tools.
Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, in “Field of Dreams” heard the whisper of “if you build it, they will come.” Alan and IBM’s model makers don’t bother to whisper. They tell their colleagues: “if you come, we will build it.”