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Letís thank the engineers
In a recent column, I celebrated instrumentation and all it has done to facilitate advances in the life sciences. Those of us who take pride in innovation get time in the limelight with our publications, lectures and even public awards. Translating our prototyped ideas into instruments that are reliable, serviceable and (daresay) usable is challenging. There are really good folks behind the scenes who configure devices others will buy. In my experience, these people often advance the science as well and contribute improvements that we scientists didn’t think possible.
We can’t imagine the gregarious Steve Jobs, man in black on stage, without thousands of engineers (who stayed in school) implementing the vision. Closer to our field we see analogies with Lee Hood and the dozens of others whose ideas for sequencing instruments, cytometers, mass spectrometers, chromatographs, microscopes, biosensors and imaging tools have enabled the modern life sciences to mine deeper.
I was reminded of engineers getting it done by two events this past November. I was a VIP guest (really only a trailing spouse) at Cape Canaveral for the launch of the MAVEN science mission to Mars. Science rarely hits a schedule, but here a $700 million, decade-long project involving multiple sites and thousands of people did just that. When they lit the candle, the Atlas V performed flawlessly right on schedule. Given a country that couldn’t get a website to function or can’t agree on much of anything, this is amazing. We do science very well, but we do engineering exceptionally well when permitted. The other November event that made me think on this topic was the passing of Burleigh Hutchins, a consummate instrumentation engineer who succumbed to kidney cancer at 74. I first met Burleigh in Milford, Mass., in the mid-70s, a few years after he had joined Waters Associates. I was starting my first garage outfit to compete in a liquid chromatography niche. Burleigh was as generous as I was naïve, but we were both learning by doing. Wisdom came later.
Bioanalytical chemists and chromatographers over 60 will remember the M6000 Solvent Delivery System (OK it was “a pump” with a nominal capacity of 6000 psi) and the accompanying U6K sample injector (the UK associated with an island north of France and the 6, you already know). These were among a number of projects where Burleigh (with his team) was instrumental in both design and manufacturability as liquid chromatography evolved at Waters from the earlier gel permeation chromatography. Given the DNA of these early products and the post-WWII Massachusetts environment, they felt industrial, meaning functional, but ugly, hefty and expensive to make. By the mid-70s, we had chemist Jim Little selling in a unique (at the time) applications-centric way, Burleigh in the foundry and Frank Zenie (himself a BSEE) in the front office as CEO. Annual growth rates of 50 percent were commonly achieved. The history is available via Google and you can find museum pieces for your garage (or anchors for your bass boat) via eBay.
This same team went on to start Zymark in 1981 in Hopkinton, Mass.; the first robots dedicated to the laboratory were lighter and a different geometry than the industrial welding models of the day. These Zymate robots had no elbows and operated on a cylindrical coordinate system that mesmerized viewers into buying them. An engineer’s dream machine—all sorts of applications modules could then be designed for the robot arm to access by moving up and down, round and round, in and out. Burleigh’s LEGOs for science! He continued his entrepreneurial problem-solving all the way through this past November with multiple startups.
Engineering and science are catalytic partners. The engineering allows for more science and the science enables more engineering. Once new ideas are exposed by the pioneers, the competitive ecosystem jumps in for the benefit of all. This, of course, is the deal with our patent system. Lighter, smaller, better pumps and injection valves evolved quickly. Many competitive innovations for bioanalytical sample handling were stimulated by Zymark. This is how the market works. There are innovators, pretenders and copycats, and no one is guaranteed success for long. Stagnovation (described in my previous column in the December 2013 issue of DDNews) occurs when markets are meddled with by crony capitalism, protectionism, entitlement, stifling regulation and egalitarian intentions that violate laws of nature. Most worrisome of all, the deep Waters’ blue of the mid-70s was replaced by shades of beige or gray for virtually every instrument (and every house) in the 40 years since. Will the new black from Thermo and Waters take hold? Please stay tuned. I prefer yellow, but I’m told there is no place for color or humor in science.
Thanks to the unsung Burleigh Hutchins of this world for all they do for science. I’ve observed that the very best instrumentation engineers make it their business to understand the science too. On the other hand, I know relatively few scientists who give more than lip service to engineering principles, especially project management. Why not take a walk back to your engineering department today and thank them for designing tools that work on our lab benches; tools that can be made, sold, used and fixed. Not everything is in the cloud.