Associate Professor Martin L. Culpepper
Associate Professor Martin L. Culpepper received his PhD in mechanical engineering from MIT, then became a professor here in 2001. He has received several awards since then, including the R&D 100 Award for his HexFlex—a structure used for very fine positioning —the Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the TR100 award for top young innovators. He is a member of ASME, the American Society for Precision Engineering, and the European Society for Precision Engineering and Nanotechnology.
Why is manufacturing still important?
Manufacturing is an easy way to maintain an advantage over the rest of the world. It is the way we create wealth, because it creates jobs, meaning more people have more money to buy things. As a result, people demand higher-tech products and want them sooner. So manufacturing has to be even faster and more agile in terms of how to service that increased customer base. Innovation in manufacturing is going to be critical because that is what is going to allow a faster, better implementation of the engineering and science that enable these new technologies.
How important is it to understand the business side?
Manufacturing encompasses two very tightly integrated components: business and science. If you walk into a machine shop, you see materials being converted into products. What governs how they get converted and how well it all works afterward is the physics of those materials—the science. But after you have a tangible object, it still has to be sold. You always have to ask yourself not only if something is scientifically possible but also questions about production, demand, cost, and supply chains.
Describe your current research.
We are currently looking at ways to manufacture at the micro and nano scale to aid scientists experimenting and implementing at this level. They are naturally separated from what they are doing simply by scale, so they have to rely on machines. We started to develop technologies that could do both displacement and force measurement down at the small scale to give scientists the instruments and equipment they needed to get a good characterization of what is happening and really understand it. The instruments we are building for them need to transition into the manufacturing phase as well. We are working on designing and building low-cost sensors that can do force and displacement sensing quickly as well as measure what is happening down to the atoms, characterizing them in ways you never could before. Scientists can fabricate with them, moving things where they want to at the nano scale. I cannot emphasize how important that is. With macro scale objects, if I want to move it, I just move it. But at the nano scale, there are a lot of different forces at play. Imagine that everything in this room sticks to everything else, so when you start grabbing for something and trying to move it, you have to be careful not to break it, but the “stickiness” can make it hard to “let go.” There are very similar problems at the nano scale. DNA or biological specimens are a good example; being able to pick and place them accurately isn’t easy, and you have to be careful how hard you push on them. We have been able to get the equipment to do nanometers easily and inexpensively, and the force measure can do 10 pica-Newtons, but we still need to integrate them. When we are done, you will actually be able to build molecular objects and measure forces on them while the material itself is undergoing a chemical transformation.
What do you like best about being a MechE professor at MIT?
Once you leave the walls of MIT, you often lose the hands-on experience that MIT does so well. You walk into a machine shop here, and there is a faculty member running a lathe or a mill. Same with students: Unless there is a good reason it cannot be made here at MIT, my students make everything. As a result, they have a really good intuition for how things work, enabling them to make decisions fast and save future employers both time and money. You can learn about manufacturing from books, and you will know manufacturing to some extent, but you don’t really understand it unless you do it yourself. That is what manufacturing is all about.