Project Spotlight: Manufacturing Equipment for LIGO Lab at CalTech

In 1915, in his general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein first predicted the presence of black holes in our universe. Over a hundred years later, scientists finally had the equipment they needed to detect black holes in our galaxy. In 2020, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in the detection and further understanding of black holes.

The science behind detecting and observing black holes is always evolving and immensely complex, much like the equipment that enables scientists at LIGO to detect and observe these exotic celestial phenomena.

Anderson Dahlen recently built and shipped the LIGO lab at CalTech high-pressure vacuum equipment based on the same equipment that is critical to the observation of our universe. What was it like to be part of such an incredible project? Read on for more!

CalTech’s Equipment: From Bid to Delivery

Our LIGO project began with an RFQ back in October 2019. Brad Schmidt, a Project Manager at Anderson Dahlen, wrote the initial bid in response to an RFQ from CalTech. Once submitted, there was a tense, months-long waiting period until the contract was awarded to Anderson Dahlen.

Officially the project kicked off with our updated statement of work in January of 2020, right at the beginning of the COVID pandemic.

Manufacturing Equipment During COVID

As the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns began to spread, our industry took a hit, as well as the LIGO lab. The lab at LIGO was closed for much of the year, so we could not get into their lab to retrieve the seven-and-a-half meter-long equipment on which we’d be working.

And then, suddenly, a truck arrived at Anderson Dahlen with the incredibly long stainless-steel tube on it: The project was back on. Right away, the project needed to be re-engineered since the equipment we received was different from what we were expecting and different from the initial plans we’d drawn.

But this wasn’t just rolling with the punches of COVID and the chaos the pandemic brought to manufacturing. In manufacturing, especially the level of production at Anderson Dahlen, there are always going to be problems and unexpected situations that only a team of innovative engineers can resolve.

If there is a silver lining to the unpredictable nature of manufacturing, it’s that often, in the re-conceptualization and redesign process, we find new ways to make the equipment better and to manufacture it with an even higher level of precision.

What Is It?

Back in the early 90s, CalTech built two massive beamlines for their LIGO lab in Washington State and Louisiana. Our task was to repurpose a section of leftover beamline from those projects and turn it into a vacuum chamber to run high vacuum experiments and observe what background gases came from the tube itself.

There was an advantage to repurposing the old beamline into a high-pressure vacuum system because the original equipment was manufactured at exactly the same time out of the same batch of material. This allowed LIGO a critical baseline from which to test off-gassing results in their experiments and have more accurate data.

A Unique Build

The bulk of our projects we engineer from the ground up. Often, we have only a sketch or a rough concept and, from there, we design and build the equipment.

But in this case, we were working on modifying an old length of the beamline. This presented the opportunity to use a lot of our fancy inspection equipment to measure and understand the precise geometry; how it was curved, how round it was, and how much it was tapered.

This process allowed us to better design parts and fixtures that fit at the appropriate location on the unit. Even figuring out how to support the equipment was a conundrum since the equipment was bigger than any of our machine tables.

Manufacturing is rarely straightforward and simple. It often requires different approaches and some fresh thinking, which is always interesting and always a challenge to overcome.

Craftsmanship of Precision Manufacturing

On the one hand, there is a very definite science behind the conceptualization, design, and build of our equipment. We engineer and manufacture equipment that is expected to work to an exacting rule. On the other hand, it is perhaps impossible to manufacture to our level of precision without the nuanced craftsmanship and creative flair of our team.

The LIGO vacuum chamber is a particular example of the harmony that can exist between science and craftsmanship.

Consider the welding that goes into a project like this. Welding is a ubiquitous and central component of manufacturing. Often robots are called in to industrialize many jobs.

We know the science of how a weld occurs. We know the composition of a quality weld joint and how to test for precision and durability. But there is nothing to replace the level of skill needed to create the welds that went into the LIGO equipment. It takes a person with impeccable hand-to-eye coordination and the steady skill to maintain the weld at its smallest size with uniform penetration along a very long distance.

The team at Anderson Dahlen has spent many years in manufacturing. In those years, we’ve seen it all. So, it was a special moment to see even seasoned customers impressed by these welds.

Interested in Learning More?

At Anderson Dahlen, there’s no shortage of incredible projects that come through our shop. There’s no telling what kind of amazing scientific discoveries or industrial breakthroughs they may be a part of.

If you’d like to learn more about some of our recent builds or how you could become part of our team, contact Anderson Dahlen.

A big thanks to Stuart Shakespeare, an engineer at Anderson Dahlen, and Scott O’Connell, a North American sales representative for the vacuum market segment. Scott and Stuart were heavily involved in the LIGO project from beginning to end. A big shout-out and thanks for their invaluable contribution in helping to write this blog.

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Meet Matthew! Matthew Blaha is a Program Manager at Anderson Dahlen. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Minnesota State University, Mankato majoring in