Disclaimer: I believe that everyone who can hang a picture on the wall can work in a machine shop. However, if you are sloppy, forgetful, or messy, don't do it. Or at least read the manuals and learn safety instructions before you go.
If you are still reading this, you are not easily scared! Welcome to the world of DIY fun and creativity which a machine shop provides. Let's start with the most common myths.
Myth 1. Machine shop is for old-school dudes who like to fix their motorcycles - today one can buy online everything needed for science.
If you can buy everything - you follow mainstream, because your tools are old and popular enough that a company makes money making and selling them. If you hit an unbeaten path, or even make adjustments, you need to invent and make new tools. Of course, you can hire engineers - but research labs are rarely that rich.
Myth 2. Machine shop is a big and expensive enterprise, only big institutes can afford it.
MS can be as big or small as you make it. I know an old Russian guy who was making custom-made cameras for wildlife photography using a lathe and a mill in his bedroom. If your budget and space are limited, you can fit a decent MS on one large table (more on this later).
Myth 3. One needs a lot of different machines.
One needs to understand which machines are most needed for his/her purposes. Usually this boils down to 2-3 machines used for 90% of the tasks.
Myth 4. Only trained machinists can operate the machines.
Operating basic machines is not more difficult than cooking. Almost anything these days can be learned from youtube.
Now, enough with the myths. Which machines are most useful in a microscopy lab and why?
Most of the time your new gizmo falls into one of these categories:
- Holders and mounts (for LED, lamp, lens, objective, projector, motor, etc)
- Adapters (mating parts from different vendors, fitting imperial<->metric, adjusting height/offset from optical axis)
- Cases, boxes and enclosures (lasers, electronic devices)
- Heat sinks (lasers, LEDs)
Tolerances. Typical milling, in principle, can be precise up to 25 microns (0.001 inch). However, to achieve and maintain this precision requires high qualification of an operator. Thankfully, tolerances in DIY microscope parts can often be quite permissive (~100 microns, 0.1 mm) which allows simple dudes like us make stuff without special training.
Downsides: relatively low accuracy, rough surface finish, plastics used in consumer-grade printers (ABS and PLA) easily deform at high temperatures. High thermal expansion coefficient of plastic, so microscope parts can drift due to temperature variation in the room.
Typical use in microscopy lab: drilling holes for custom tap size in Thorlabs breadboards; cutting off unneeded parts, drilling holes for cable routing.
One can also buy a drill press to make holes. However, a mill can do holes and additionally cuts in XYZ directions, so it is a better investment.
Indispensable tool for customizing breadboards and making laser enclosures.
Caution: plastic emits toxic fumes when laser-cut, so a good air ventilation (or hood) required.
Prices are approximate
3D printers.Extrusion printers are budget-friendly, materials are relatively cheap and can be purchased from many suppliers. Higher-end printer is preferred is you want to spend more time on science and less on printer debugging.
Example: Ultimaker 2+, €1900
Stereolithography printers use UV-curable resin and give higher precision than extrusion printers. Come at a higher cost and relatively expensive resin.
Example: Formlabs Form 2, €4100
There are a lot of reviews and resources about 3D printers: check 11 things to consider to start with.
- Heavy is better, so cast iron base is good. If the mill is light-weight, it is more flimsy and prone to vibrations, which reduce accuracy.
- Cheap mills have looser tolerances, large backlash and, again, vibrations.
- The more power, the better. Good table-top mills start from about 1 hp (750W) power.
- If possible, get a machine with digital axis position readouts (DROs) - they simplify precise positioning a lot, being available in high-end machines.
If you want accurate milling, invest in a more expensive machine, it will pay off. Expect spending at least $2000 on it. After some research in the Internet, I listed some good options below. Your best bet depends on your budget, geographical location and, well, fussiness of your institute's purchase department.
In the USA
JET JMD-18, $2300
Shop Fox, $2200
Paulimot machines, starting at €1200 (610W) and up.
Frada Shop, especially BF 25 with 3-axis digital readout, for €2100.
Note that mills are typically sold bare and require a few extra things: sturdy table, machinist wise, end mills, and center finder. But these things are relatively inexpensive.
Good reviews about purchasing a mill.
Shopping Guide for Best Milling Machines
Tips for buying your first milling machine
If interested in more details, message me @nvladimus and I will cover them in updates.