Outside of the box problem solving

So today I was assembling yet another version of my microscope and as I sanded down some wood that I’d glued to it a thought occurred, it might be nice to spend some time talking about how some times scientific equipment is a bit more slapped together than some might think.

Below are my top 5 examples of when I’ve bodged together some equipment out of some un-likley materials. If you’ve got stories of your own crazy contraptions then please share them in the comments or on twitter (@MCeeP).

5. Sand paper – The PSAwatch system for Mediwatch I worked on for a while is comprised of a small plastic cassette and a reader. The first few versions of the plastic cassette had the very small problem of being slightly too thick to fit in the reader system (both cunningly developed separately). Our solution; sand them down to size, by hand, all 200 of them. As the cassettes were prototype mouldings some needed more sanding than others and in some cases parts of the cassettes ended up being basically transparent.

4. Cardboard – What do you do if you find yourself needing a fluorescent microarray reader at short notice using a budget of £0 and 0p, you use what’s lying around in the office of course! Using a cardboard box, my own SLR camera, a UV money checker thing I got as a freebie and quite a lot of Sellotape I built a microarray reader system that produced photos like this;

Totally pro
Totally pro

Obviously it’s not quite as good as the fancy ‘proper’ machines but for a small company just wanting to start out with microarray systems this was pretty much perfect. Although when the project was presented to the share-holders we did tend to miss out the ‘it’s made of cardboard’ bit.

I think it might be broken
I think it might be broken

3. Emergency water – A good chunk of my PhD was on the use of Langmuir-Blodgette films to coat sensor systems. Every time I ran an experiment I used around 1.25L of de-ionised water While I had a working de-ionised water generator this was easy to come by. However, my water generator is a little temperamental and breaks down constantly. So rather than stop work when I can’t make de-ionised water I just dropped in at my local car-supplies shop in the morning and picked up some battery top-up water which has the same properties. The water is obviously not certified so I’d never use it for any published work but it was perfectly suitable for a few rough and ready experiments such as trying out new ideas ready for more stringent testing once my good-for-nothing water generator started magically working again.

2. Lego – I have a bit of history with making things I need to use in the lab out of Lego. However, before the BAM and before I even worked at Cranfield decided one day that I wanted to make myself a microarray plotter for a new device I was working on. So after coming up with a few designs I went off an purchased the  Lego Mindstorms kit that I would end up using for countless projects. A few days later and after covering my lounge with small plastic bits I’d finished building a simple plotter system that could make 9 reproducible dots in a 2 x 2mm grid. Obviously this is a little short of the performance of commercial systems but  if all you need to do it start testing a device this was plenty good enough to get the data I needed to secure some more funding.

1. Blu-tack and tape – These comes in at a joint number 1 because both have been a critical ingredient, not in any one grand project, but in countless bodged bits of kit. At a guess I’d say 75% of it’s use, for me, is normally fixing some old kit that is starting to fall apart or has loose wires and either Blu-tack, tape or a combination of both is often on hand to fix the problem long enough to get some data out before a creating a more permeant solution.

Duck-tape the solution to many lab problems
Duck-tape the solution to many common lab problems

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