Six months ago, at a weekly meeting at Professor Subhash Rajpurohit's Environment and Experimental Ecology (EEE) lab, housed at the School of Arts and Sciences, lab assistant Ashwin said he wanted to design something that would keep flies awake. "He wanted something that would not allow them to rest or sleep – a mechanism to induce exercise and stress," says Professor Rajpurohit. “He came up with a basic design of a conveyor belt with 22 tubes.” The idea was unusual, and the lab approached the team at the University's Fabrication Workshop. Together, they created what could possibly be the first treadmill for insects.
"It's not the first time we have made unique demands from our Fabrication Shop. One of our master's students is researching the thermal preferences of insects. We wanted a mechanism with a range of temperatures with spaces for the test tubes to rest. Nothing like this pre-exists in the market, so we had to design it from scratch. We discussed the design and the best material with the fabrication team," says Professor Rajpurohit. The EEE lab now has an indigenously designed and manufactured thermal gradient that measures behavioural fever as an adaptive strategy in insects.
Spread over an expansive two floors, the Fabrication Workshop at Ahmedabad University is overseen by the School of Engineering and Applied Science. However, it is a standalone entity that nurtures hands-on learning across Schools and Programmes at the University. It mentors students on their blueprints, helps them evaluate and procure materials, and guides them through the final project. It also assists faculty in building complex tools for their research labs and supports start-ups at the University's incubation facility, VentureStudio. The breadth and depth of experience of the team, a mix of skilled professionals from industries, ensures that not only can they assist first-time creators in building a birdfeeder with a collection module for poop that could be converted to manure but also leverage their expertise to engineer complex optical breadboards at a fraction of the cost for faculty to facilitate research and teaching.
Professor Rajpurohit says, "The fabrication facility is crucial to learning. In most universities, subjects exist in silos. If there are fabrication workshops, they are restricted to engineering schools. Ours is a University-wide facility and one with a dedicated, skilled team and state-of-the-art machinery."
Professor Aditya Vaishya's Air and Climate Research Laboratory at the School of Arts and Sciences constantly monitors ambient air quality. One of the focus areas of the lab is on usage of small, low-cost atmospheric sensor modules for investigating particulate matter. "We need several sensor modules, and the cost can overthrow budgets. Also, we want them in a particular size to ensure we have a cluster of sensor modules for a greater spread. Here's what our fabrication facility devised for us," he says, picking up a palm-sized, lightweight module. "We experimented with different materials like metal sheets, MDF, and more, before eventually moving to acrylic. It's lightweight, sturdy, and sleek."
Professor Vaishya's students, taking courses in mechanics, electromagnetism, optics, and electronics actively use the fabrication facility. "Ahmedabad University’s BS in Physics programme has two unique pedagogies that we engage our students with, hands-on learning and our Blank Lab; the latter requiring them to work on explaining scientific laws by creating the apparatus. Students make earnest use of the fabrication facility for precision drilling, cutting, welding, moving on to fabricating, 3D printing, engraving, CNC cutting, and more." He distinctly remembers one of the experiments he facilitated in the Environment and Climate Change studio of the University's unique Foundation Programme, which has students across Programmes at the University take common courses. "We needed something that would measure the temperatures of different materials, like clay or dry sand, to understand how quickly different materials heat up or cool down. Such measurements will help us in deciding the kind of materials we should use in a rising temperature scenario due to climate change. We went with a brief to the fabrication team. They had a simple yet extremely effective bucket-styled design with multiple temperature measuring points which could be filled with the materials that the students selected."
Professor Krishna Swamy of the Biological and Life Sciences division at the School of Arts and Sciences utilises the fabrication facility to manufacture new tools and modify existing ones. "Manufacturing anything in-house has a cost benefit. More importantly, it is the availability of specific tools. If we order commercial tools in the open market, there might be a lag of months before it arrives at the lab. When we get these manufactured at our fabrication facility, we can optimise it to our use and customise materials, and even something as specific as the width of the drilling."
At his lab, Professor Swamy had asked for a Large Capacity Tube Rotator to be manufactured at the Fabrication Workshop. He says, "A tube rotator is used to culture microbes in test tubes. The tubes' circular rotation helps mix oxygen in media and dispersion of microbes, which is required for their healthy growth." The fabrication team designed and fabricated a roller drum with a honeycomb symmetry design that can hold 50 (15 ml) tubes, 80 (15 ml) tubes, and 40 (50 ml) tubes. He adds, "We need replica plating tools to screen hundreds of yeast or bacterial colonies under multiple conditions in one go, and also velveteen squares, in large numbers." The fabrication facility devised an acrylic velvet holder and an aluminium cylinder that was autoclave-sterilisation-friendly and could be used for Petri dishes of varying sizes, unlike those commercially available. "Currently, I have requested a needle holder for my tetrad dissection microscope as the original holder that came with it wasn't up to the mark. I have asked that the needle holder be flattened and its length be reduced by a centimetre. Without our fabrication facility, I would have had to look for other avenues, which would take away my research time."
The Fabrication Workshop also offers its facilities and knowledge expertise to the community. Start-ups at VentureStudio use the fabrication facility to engineer their products, working closely with the team. Nikki Thakrar's start-up, Shin-Up Mobility, nurtured at VentureStudio, is a classic example. The semi-automatic staircase load carrier with a load-bearing capacity of 500 kg is now close to pilot testing, and was entirely developed at the fabrication facility.
The team at the Fabrication Workshop works as teaching assistants alongside faculty on students' projects. Bharat Sood, Senior Manager, says, "We engage with engineering students, doctoral students, undergraduates, start-ups, and even students taking the Independent Study Period programme. Most of the time, their design has been thought-through and approved by the faculty. We play the role of their advisors and guides. Some may never have worked with these tools, but we encourage them to. Through our association with faculty as well, we are fostering learning. We are here to provide them a nurturing environment and, in a sense, give wings to their ideas."