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December 1, 2017
Fabricators Move from ORS to ORF

Howard Metger works on custom instrumentation.
Howard Metger works on custom instrumentation.

Where do NIH scientists go when they need custom instrumentation, equipment design, fabrication and modification services? For the past 35 years, the Mechanical Instrumentation Design and Fabrication Branch in the Office of Research Services’ Division of Scientific Equipment and Instrumentation Services (DSEIS) has provided these services to campus researchers.

On Oct. 1, the design and fabrication services moved from ORS to the Office of Research Facilities. DSEIS will continue to provide equipment sales, rental, maintenance and repair services.

“It was an extremely tough decision to close down this important resource, but due to the budgetary circumstances, it had to be made,” said Tim Tosten, acting ORS director. “Fortunately, Dan Wheeland, ORF director, stepped up and found a way to make it work to assist both our aging NIH infrastructure and our scientists.”

Tammie Edwards, DSEIS acting director, called the move a “win-win for everybody involved.” It allows former design and fabrication staff to continue doing what they love, lets investigators continue to use the service, brings their unique expertise to ORF, helps maintain older campus buildings and finds a new home for a valued operation.

Edwards noted that the branch was fee-for-service, meaning it must recover costs through a charge-back system. Although efforts were made to improve efficiencies and increase outreach efforts, new technologies such as 3-D printing and insufficient workload made it difficult to achieve solvency.

The advances, however, haven’t made the staff’s expertise obsolete. They are “experts at their craft,” said former supervisor Jerry Tyus. Everything they make is a one-of-a-kind piece to help scientists conduct experiments and contribute to innovative research. In a 2012 video about the service, NEI scientific director and senior investigator Dr. Sheldon Miller said, “This group is extremely professional and the work that they do is excellent.”

One of the employees, Howard Metger, has worked there since 2004. Before that, he was with the Department of Defense and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. At NIST, he and his coworker Robert Clary helped design and build the display cases for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

These days, Metger helps researchers, scientists and surgeons design or modify metal and plastic devices. Often, customers come in and describe a problem to him and he finds a solution. Recently, the branch built devices that house animals, separate blood and support a knee.

Metger doesn’t use 3-D printing because the resolution on the printers isn’t always high enough. For example, he built a blood separator that required a piece .012 of an inch wide—the width of 3 strands of hair.

“3-D printing is great for some things, but doesn’t help with the very small projects,” he said.

The branch regularly saves researchers money. In one instance, a scientist needed a replacement screw for a microscope. She came to Metger after she learned the device’s manufacturer didn’t have any replacements. The researcher would’ve had to buy another microscope. Metger looked at the screw and started working.

“In 10 minutes, we saved NIH $20,000 with our little bit of knowledge,” he explained. “To a single researcher, that’s a lot of money.”

NIH’ers can now procure fabrication services for themselves by completing a maintenance service request online or by phone. For more information, visit https://www.orf.od.nih.gov/PropertyManagement/MaintenanceServiceRequests/Pages/default.aspx.

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