Having an on-site machine shop staffed by talented and collaborative machinists enables Wyss researchers to prepare their technologies more efficiently and effectively for the real world
By Jessica Leff
After walking through the main entrance lobby on the second floor of the Wyss Institute, if you turn to the left and peek through the glass windows, you’ll see a room full of large machines – contraptions in hues of gray, white, black, and tan with various buttons and levers. A trained eye will recognize Haas CNC Milling Machines, a ProTRAK CNC Milling Machine, an Epilog Laser Cutter, and more. This room is the Wyss machine shop and working there tirelessly day in and day out you’ll find John Caramanica and Paul Machado, the Wyss’ own Staff Scientific Instrument Makers.
How the Wyss machine shop works
In some ways the Wyss machine shop is like any other – it’s a room where machinists, in this case Caramanica and Machado, use blueprints, sketches, or computer-aided design (CAD), along with manufacturing files and equipment to manufacture parts. But what sets ours apart is that rather than receiving drawings or files from faceless clients, Caramanica and Machado work collaboratively (and exclusively) with Wyss researchers.
“We manufacture pretty much anything that Wyss scientists, researchers, and engineers want made. They come to us with a quick sketch or an idea and ask us whether it’s possible. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred we can make their vision a reality,” says Machado.
To begin the process, researchers can reach out to the machine shop team via the Wyss’ internal wiki, or they can stop by and introduce themselves. Then engineers will develop and submit their own designs. However, Caramanica explains, “Scientists usually don’t have that background, so they’ll come to us with a more rudimentary sketch or even just an idea. We talk it out with them, determine what they need, and create something from scratch.” Much of their work involves making prototypes during the research and development phase. “Typically, once we get a working product, real-world processes take over so it can be mass manufactured.”
But until that point, the researchers rely heavily on Caramanica and Machado for assistance, as they are the only people at the Institute who can use most of the highly specialized machinery. Even the few machines in the shop that researchers can use require training from Machado. So, without the two of them, the innovative work at the Wyss would grind to a halt.
The people behind the machines
Caramanica and Machado have a long history of working together, and an even longer history as machinists. Machado started young, enrolling in the machine shop trade program in high school. Since graduating, he has worked in shops of all types. He started at the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) in 2002. As part of their collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute and NASA, he engineered parts for space shuttles and telescopes. Caramanica joined HCO a few years after Machado, following 26 years as a Class A Tool and Die Maker at Raytheon and earning his degree in mechanical engineering, eventually coming on full-time in 2008.
They repeated that pattern at the Wyss Institute with Machado joining first in 2011, and Caramanica in 2013. Machado remembers, “It was a big transition going from aerospace, which is a lot of big precision parts, to the Wyss where I was making really small things for medical applications. Also, when working with the government, they have to sign off on every single little thing that you do. Here I have a bit more freedom to be creative and explore an idea.”
Both men share a love of dogs and working with their hands. Caramanica is passionate about woodworking and has a small, eight-pound Havanese named Poppy. Machado has a Bichon Poo named Ryder and notes, “There’s nothing I’m not afraid to tackle – I’ll do plumbing, electrical, carpentry, work on cars. I grew up around people that were very hands-on, and I took to it without any formal training.”
The two have an easy rhythm. In addition to their over 17 years as colleagues, they used to commute together, living only a few towns apart. Caramanica jokes, “We spend more time with each other than we do with our wives!” When asked what it is like to work together, Machado laughs, “It’s like working with my father.”
Quick, convenient, and custom-made
Ask anyone who’s worked with Caramanica and Machado, and they’ll tell you that having an internal machine shop on-site is hugely beneficial. Typically, when an engineer sends something out to another company for fabrication, they get minimal input from the shop. When they receive the prototype and put it together, it might not look or work like they’d envisioned it would, and they have to start the process all over again, which costs time and money.
“Since we are all collaborators here, we discuss the plans before we start working,” Machado says, noting how their work is unique. “With our backgrounds, we can be versatile and help them troubleshoot and adjust before manufacturing anything. Plus, since we’re in-house, they can come down at any time and make changes to their own work.”
Engineer Susan Marquez, who has worked with the machine shop on numerous projects, explains, “Having John and Paul on-site moves projects forward much more quickly than sending parts out. They help us with review during part design, and with quick modifications when things don’t go as planned. They are a huge asset to instrumentation development.”
Mechanical Engineer David Kalish, M.Eng., agrees that having the machine shop is crucial. “The nature of the Wyss’ work means we often can’t use off-the-shelf parts and devices, because the research needs are too specific, novel, or specialized. Without John and Paul, we would have limited options.” If Kalish outsourced that work, not only would it be more expensive, but it would be wasteful, because companies often have large minimum order sizes that aren’t a good match for the one or two prototypes researchers often need.
From biospleen to biosafety: no project too big or too small
The list of projects Caramanica and Machado have contributed to over the years includes the vibrating mattress, the pediatric exoskeleton, and the Human Body on a Chip. Though they’ve all had their own challenges and rewards, a few projects stand out. Caramanica recalls, “The ProjectAbbie autoinjector had a real impact on me because of the direct connection to the patient population.”
For Machado the design of the biospleen project for sepsis amazed him. Michael Super, Ph.D., Lead Staff Scientist and lead on the project, was equally impressed with Caramanica and Machado’s work. “John and Paul came up with a novel way to allow magnetic beads (with captured pathogen) to be collected through slits cut in aluminum, which was much simpler than the drilling we were using before. We were able to increase throughput and accuracy. Their ability to work with scientists in an iterative fashion to improve technologies is so valuable.”
No project, or person, is too big or too small. They have done everything from manufacture signs for the Wyss conference rooms to create the plastic shield for the front desk during the COVID-19 pandemic to customize existing parts to better fit researchers’ needs to design numerous technology prototypes. Caramanica remembers, “Once George Church wanted something and we manufactured it for him. He came by, saw the shop, and said, ‘This is awesome!’ We’ve helped him with other projects since.”
Caramanica and Machado’s colleagues describe them as professional, friendly, helpful, creative, and efficient. Senior Director of Translational R&D, Jim Niemi, M.S., who has worked extensively with them as part of the Living Cellular Device Platform, says, “John and Paul love to interact, solve problems, and be part of a team. From the researcher’s perspective, the ability to work iteratively with accomplished machinists and fabricators with their level of experience is truly unique. Other machine shops are vendors, John and Paul have turned the machine shop into design and engineering partners.”
Senior Director of Research Operations and Biosafety Officer Robert Rasmussen, Ph.D., who is their administrative supervisor, agrees that they are experts at what they do.
Rasmussen also admits that when he first interviewed at the Wyss, even he didn’t know what the machine shop was all about. Now, when talking to visitors, he explains, “Where most labs in the area might start a new project by first deciding what type of cell culture plates they need to order, a new project at the Wyss might literally start from scratch with Paul and John making our own tissue culture plates. Their work, and the training they provide researchers, is essential to the Institute’s unique ability to design and construct a vast array of prototypes to serve the exact needs of specific projects.” Simply put, Caramanica and Machado and their work in the on-site machine shop is crucial to the Wyss’ efficient technology translation.