To get to LSA's Scientific Instrument Shop, pass through the courtyard filled with leafy bushes and sculptures that’s between West Hall and Randall Laboratory. Continue into the basement of Randall Lab and follow the sound of buzzing machines until you reach a metal door. Step through that door, and you’ll find a row of hulking milling machines. They look like awkward behemoths, but these machines can shave layers of solid material to specifications within a thousandth of an inch.

“Can you picture what a thousandth of an inch is?” asks Mike Folts, who supervises a team of four highly skilled instrument makers at the shop. “Your hair is probably three thousandths of an inch in diameter. Divide the thickness of your hair into three pieces,” he continues. “That’s how thin this machine can cut.” Case in point: The team of instrument makers has built a device that holds a capillary so small, biological cells have just enough space to flow through one at a time. The shop creates such precision apparatus not only for research labs in the physics, chemistry, and astronomy departments of LSA, but also for departments and programs across campus.

Teeny-tiny end mills (pictured above) are some of the pint-sized tools used in the shop. The end mills are pictured here next to a dime for size comparison. Photo by Rob Hess 

Around 1892, the physics department established its own independent machine shop. Back then, physicists had to build many of their own research devices, and the shop became an important part of the department’s success, especially the pioneering research that involved infrared spectrometers and particle accelerators. The shop eventually moved to Randall Lab, where it has been since 1963. In 2010, the separate machine shops in physics, chemistry, and astronomy consolidated to form the LSA Scientific Instrument Shop, which has a staff of five instrument makers. One of the machinists supervises the Student Shop next door, where researchers on campus can learn to custom build their own equipment.

The shop houses dozens of precision machines, at least 600 different tools, and more than 4,000 types of hardware of incremental size. Stacks of drawers labeled “tiny end mills,” “boring heads,” and “jewel saws” neatly occupy much of the space. Metal pieces pile onto shelves that line the walls, and you can dip your hands deep into barrels filled with plastic shavings.

The shop’s projects are as diverse as U-M’s campus. The team of instrument makers has built an artificial sky that captures light for a graduate student project; a device that converts sunlight to electricity for a physics lab; wheel covers for the solar car team; artificial aquatic ecosystems for a lab in the School of Natural Resources and Environment; and for the U-M Health System, an accessory that treats retinal cancer with radioactive pellets. The shop also helps maintain or build components for telescopes in Angell Hall, the Detroit Observatory, and the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

This small but complex piece is a component made for a telescope. Photo by Mike Folts

The skilled instrument makers in the shop are not trained scientists, Folts admits. “We try to understand the science to the degree necessary to create an apparatus,” he says. “But we also need to know when not to be precise.” The aim is not to perfect every project to the thousandth of an inch—that would take too long and isn’t necessary for every piece—but rather to keep labs up and running with optimum precision, expense, and effort. “It’s a continuous judgment call,” Folts says, and the staff has decades of experience among them in making those decisions.

The sculptures in the courtyard outside of Randall Lab commemorate some of the discoveries by U-M physics faculty that wouldn’t have been possible without the instrument shop. They include pieces that celebrate the observations of magnetism in electrons by H. Richard Crane and the groundbreaking research on antimatter by Arthur Rich (Ph.D. ’65). Physics Professor Emeritus Jens Zorn designed the sculptures, and if they look particularly well made, that’s because the team of instrument makers at LSA’s Scientific Instrument Shop had a hand in building some of those, too.