research news

Instrument Machine Shop makes research, discovery possible

Thomas Brachmann, Kevin Cullinan and Gary Nottingham, the team in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Instrument Machine Shop.

College of Arts and Sciences Instrument Machine Shop staff (from left) Thomas Brachmann, Kevin Cullinan and Gary Nottingham plan, design, fabricate and repair the precision devices UB scientists need to conduct their research. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published May 13, 2024

“When faculty come into the shop and explain their complex research to us, we work together to solve the other half — the mechanics of what they want — to help their vision come to life and build things accordingly. ”
Kevin Cullinan, instructional support technician
College of Arts and Sciences Instrument Machine Shop

As members of an R1 research institution, UB’s faculty, staff and students are determined to solve the world’s most complex problems. But who’s behind the curtain making the mechanics of these research discoveries and innovations possible?

Meet Thomas Brachmann, Kevin Cullinan and Gary Nottingham, the team in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Instrument Machine Shop. With more than 90 years of combined machining experience, these staff members tirelessly plan, design, fabricate and repair precision devices from start to finish.

They are the quintessential “jack of all trades” using the shop’s lathes, mills, saws, welding equipment and a complete woodworking shop on the first floor of Fronczak Hall to get their jobs done. And when the tools they need for a specific task don’t exist, they make them. Whether it’s custom fabrication of a thread for a machine, or outsmarting the computerized settings to optimize the outcome, they can do it all. 

“Every single day the work is rewarding, and we never ever stop learning,” says Cullinan, instructional support technician in the Instrument Machine Shop. “When faculty come into the shop and explain their complex research to us, we work together to solve the other half — the mechanics of what they want — to help their vision come to life and build things accordingly.”

The team’s modesty competes with its workmanship. Not only are they extraordinary mechanics and technicians, but they are also expert communicators. The team has the experience to know the right questions to ask, be acute listeners and communicate plans effectively so everyone is on the same page with the extraordinarily precise details required.

“When we feel like we’ve asked a lot of questions, then we ask more and interject with our knowledge on the process,” says Nottingham, instructional support technician.

These details are vital to their success, as they are always working on a wide range of projects. They have built everything from lab and laser tables, to optic adapters, to recirculating flumes, including one that is 35-feet long.

Kevin Cullinan pictured next to the 35-ft recirculating flume built in the machine shop.

Kevin Cullinan, instructional support technician, with the 35-foot recirculating flume constructed in the CAS Instrument Machine Shop. Photo: Douglas Levere

Yes, that’s right. A 35-foot recirculating flume that can perfectly mimic the environment of a small stream, recirculating water and sediment. The flume, housed in Wilkenson Quad in the Ellicott Complex, is managed by Sean Bennett, associate dean for social sciences in the college and professor in the Department of Geography.

“As an experimental geomorphologist, hydraulic flumes are the backbone of my entire research program,” says Bennett. Since arriving at UB, he has studied a variety of topics with flumes constructed, modified and maintained by Cullinan in the Instrument Machine Shop. The flumes help him investigate erosion and rill development on a soil-mantled landscape; the effect of large woody debris on streambank stability and local scour; fish movement and behavior in complex turbulent flows; the hydrodynamics of impinging jets and soil erosion; the effect of aquatic mussels on open channel flow; fish swimming capability and fatigue; mechanics of sediment suspension in a zero-mean shear flow; and the effect of vegetation on near-bank flow in rivers, among other topics. 

Bigger projects like these not only greatly benefit faculty and their research efforts, but many students utilize the facilities as well. “Dozens of students have used the flumes for educational purposes and nearly all of the research was supported by external grants,” says Bennett. “The machine shop is an unrivaled resource for any faculty member or student whose work involves anything related to materials,” he adds.

While the influx of requests at the Instrument Machine Shop involves builds for nationally funded research and scientific study, it also supports creativity in the college in unique ways.

The tanks designed and constructed by members of the machine shop for Paul Vanouse's exhibition.

The team in the machine shop also helped design and build these tanks used by art professor Paul Vanouse in his artwork, "Labor." Photo: Douglas Levere

For faculty members like Paul Vanouse, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Art and director of Coalesce, the shop is vital to his artistry. His bio-media artwork often employs molecular biology techniques to challenge entrenched notions of individual, racial and national identity. 

“I’ve been working with the college’s Instrument Machine Shop since I arrived at UB about 25 years ago,” says Vanouse. “I was told about their work by a representative from Fisher Scientific when I was working on my first large-scale bio-art project, “The Relative Velocity Inscription Device.” Gary Nottingham helped me realize a giant DNA gel electrophoresis rig out of plexiglass, which was the centerpiece of the project,” he adds.

Vanouse’s artwork, “Labor,” used bacteria to recreate the smell of human sweat inside 25-gallon industrial fermenters, also made by the Instrument Machine Shop. “With ‘Labor’ Kevin Cullinan and Tom Gruenauer (since retired) suggested key hardware, materials and design solutions — from how to fabricate concentric rings with minimal material to the perfect hardware connectors for the works aesthetic,” says Vanouse. In 2019, “Labor” was on exhibit at the Burchfield Penney Art Center and later received the “Golden Nica,” the top prize from nearly 1,000 nominations and submissions at the 2020 Prix Ars Electronica Festival in Austria. 

“The CAS Instrument Machine Shop is a fantastic resource for anyone who fabricates their own parts or devices, whether you are an artist, physicist, biologist, geologist, engineer or some combination of these,” says Vanouse.

Sambandamurthy Ganapathy, associate dean for research and professor in the Department of Physics, agrees.

“When I arrived in 2016, the first major task was to install gas recovery pipelines in my laboratory spaces,” says Ganapathy. “This is not a trivial task, and the team designed the recovery lines and flow meters connecting to the central helium liquefaction facility and then installed the pipelines successfully, which was critical for the successful operation of cryogenic instruments in my research group.

“The machine shop staff are not there only to complete the tasks requested, they are extremely collaborative in the projects from the designing stages all the way to fabrication and provide technical support and valuable inputs based on their expertise and experience,” added Ganapathy. “Often this has resulted in a product better than what was originally planned.”

Faculty and graduate students within the college interested in working with the Instrument Machine Shop can complete the online form to schedule a consultation. To learn more about the CAS Instrument Machine Shop, visit the website.