Biotech Manufacturing: A Good Machinist is Critical for Your Laboratory Reagents

Travis Beyer, Machinist Technician, at the CNC milling machine in the Promega machine shop.

Travis Beyer, Machinist Technician, at the CNC milling machine in the Promega machine shop.

It can be easy to forget that Promega is a manufacturing business. The company’s cGMP Feynman Center on the Madison campus has been described as looking more like a retreat than a factory. But hidden within the well-designed walls of Feynman, as well as in other facilities on campus, technicians operate hundreds of machines that manufacture, dispense and package Promega reagents day in and day out. Keeping those high-tech machines running at peak performance is critical, requiring immense skill, precision and even artistry. That’s where Promega Machinist Technician Travis Beyer comes in.

“I get to make stuff,” says Travis who is not afraid to show his enthusiasm for his craft while describing the best part of his job. “There’s a product at the end of the day. Plus I get to support science, and make things that support people’s lives. That’s cool.”

 I get to make stuff. There’s a product at the end of the day. Plus I get to support science, and make things that support people’s lives. That’s cool.

The da Vinci Center, another artfully designed building on the Madison campus, houses the Promega machine shop where Travis does his work designing or improving on parts for newer manufacturing equipment or reverse engineering broken or worn parts no longer available for older equipment that still serves its purpose. He makes every machine part imaginable from drive shafts to sensor brackets to filling forks, and his work is critical to manufacturing businesses like Promega, where a downed piece of equipment can cause costly production delays.

An example of a machine part that Travis designs or reverse engineers and then builds to keep Promega manufacturing moving smoothly.

An example of a machine part that Travis designs or reverse engineers and then builds to keep Promega manufacturing moving smoothly.

As he explains, not many manufacturing companies the size of Promega have a fully capable machine shop. They usually send out their work, meaning longer lead times and more expense. But, as its distinctive architecture suggests, Promega is not like many other companies.

“It’s more cost effective for us to do these projects in-house ourselves,” says Travis. “For the small amount of parts that we need, it would be very expensive to send out.”

Plus, being able to reverse engineer and manufacture a broken part in-house cuts lead times from multiple weeks to as little as one day.

“I do a plethora of things. Every day is unique,” says Travis. Last year, he completed 166 projects. Everything from making a single replacement part for manufacturing equipment to designing and building an 8-foot-tall custom mixer stand for the Promega Lab Support Services group. He also designed and produced the Magnabot 96 Flex Separation Device, a part for the Promega Maxwell® instrument, to help improve the efficiency of the instrument that isolates genomic DNA from blood, cells or tissue.

Travis shows the part he redesigned for the Promega Maxwell® instrument.

Travis shows the part he redesigned for the Promega Maxwell® instrument.

Travis says the most challenging part of his job is also the most interesting. “Many times, people will come to me with a problem without knowing exactly what they need,” says Travis. So, much like an explorer taking on unfamiliar terrain, he begins by surveying the task before him, analyzing the objective and deciding what it will take to get to the optimal solution. “What at first seems like a ten part, two-week project can become a nine-week, sixty part job.”

Many times, people will come to me with a problem without knowing exactly what they need

Travis does 95 percent of his work on a CNC milling machine, a computer-programmed robot that uses various bits to cut and sculpt blocks of aluminum, plastic, brass, or stainless steel into machine parts with the precision of the width of a human hair. It is meticulous work that requires time, patience and above all, incredible skill. Travis uses CAD software to create the design, which must go beyond looking good on the screen, but also must be able to be built efficiently the first time, and easily rebuilt in the future should the part ever need to be replaced.

Travis prepares the milling machine to take another part.

Travis prepares the milling machine to make another part.

But a machine shop with advanced equipment is virtually useless without employees like Travis with specialized skills, and those skilled workers are getting harder and harder to find. As systems become more complex and interconnected, the manufacturing industry will need employees with the specialized skills and knowledge to support producing the products that meet customer needs. Analysts have been sounding alarm bells about the skills gap in US manufacturing for the last 25 years, and Travis, who began his machining career 20 years ago as an apprentice, agrees that this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

“We need more machinists!” he says.

Recognizing that supporting training in Advanced Manufacturing is vital to the company’s future well being, Promega sponsors scholarships at Madison Area Technical College to provide education and training opportunities for students in this area.

The custom mixing stand that Travis designed and built for Promega Lab Support Services group.

The custom mixing stand that Travis designed and built for Promega Lab Support Services group.

If the art of machining needed a spokesperson to attract students to the field, Travis would be it. He clearly loves his job and shares his enthusiasm with all who enter his Promega shop. But his biggest fans are by far his two young sons to whom he is passing along his curiosity for how things work.

“I look at everything from the perspective of what it took to make it, especially toys. Legos are an amazing feat of engineering. The mold it takes to form the plastic is an incredibly complicated mold to make,” says Travis, explaining the perfect precision that must be achieved in order for each and every brick to snap together exactly. “Legos are expensive for a reason.”

Travis thrives on creatively and efficiently solving whatever challenge is thrown his way to make sure Promega manufacturing continues to run without a hitch. He is also appreciative of the fact that his efforts contribute to the world of science. But his sons are the main reason he is happy to be at Promega.

“[My previous job] while challenging, was also stressful, requiring long days and a long commute,” says Travis. “My youngest son was tired of me being gone all the time. I’d leave home before he was awake and sometimes come home after he was in bed. It broke my heart. It broke my wife’s heart. They’re only this age once,” says Travis.

So, when he had an opportunity to apply at Promega, he jumped at it, appreciating the company’s mission of advancing science and its prioritization of work-life balance, leaving Travis and his sons much more time together to wonder at the manufacturing marvels of Legos.

 

 

 

The following two tabs change content below.
Karen is a Communication Specialist who has the privilege of helping to tell the Promega story in a multitude of ways. A former reporter, producer and teacher, Karen holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. She is the mom of teenage twins and one very spoiled (yet deserving) rescue dog.

2 thoughts on “Biotech Manufacturing: A Good Machinist is Critical for Your Laboratory Reagents

  1. As someone who has designed CNC control systems and worked with CAD software, I can appreciate the skill that Travis has shown. We do need more skilled machinists and I applaud Promega’s efforts in supporting these technologies.

Leave a Reply