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Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

Robotic Motion and Drug-Carrying Nanoparticles: A Look at Two Paths Through the Diverse World of Manufacturing Research

a graphic collage of different visual elements to suggest biomanufacturing and manufacturing using robots. The words MFG DAY 2021 appear in the top left hand corner.
Credit: N. Hanacek/NIST

Manufacturing is a colossal industry and key pillar of the U.S. economy. It takes millions of workers to keep this juggernaut moving forward every day. Engineers, technicians and machine operators on the factory floor may come to mind, but researchers are part of this group as well. At the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), studies are conducted across a broad array of fields to make for smarter manufacturing processes. This Manufacturing Day, we’re underscoring the diversity of NIST manufacturing research by showcasing Tom Cleveland’s work in structural biology and Guixiu ‘Helen’ Qiao’s efforts in robotics.

Tracking Robots in Motion With Helen Qiao

In manufacturing, consistency and repetition are the names of the game. It’s a game for which robots are particularly well-suited, thanks to their ability to execute tasks over and over. In recent years, the industrial applications of robots have expanded greatly. They are used in factories for machining, assembly, inspection and other tasks, but a high degree of accuracy in robot motion is required for the best outcomes.

Early in her education, NIST mechanical engineer Helen Qiao became fascinated by the accuracy of robots but learned they are far from infallible. Robots, like other technologies, wear down over time and can develop flaws in their control systems. Issues can cause their performance to slip, and without accuracy, robots are not far from being highly sophisticated toys.

Minor errors in performance, such as a slightly misaligned robot arm, may not be apparent to the human eye but could have detrimental consequences for manufactured parts or products. Helen became well acquainted with this issue during a more-than-10-year detour from NIST research into the precision measurement industry where she worked on laser-based tracking methods designed to determine if machining tools were moving as intended.

With an abundance of practical industry experience under her belt, Helen returned to NIST eager to provide a lower-cost and easier-to-deploy solution for assessing robot accuracy. What many tracking systems actually track, rather than robots themselves, are stationary targets (such as reflective balls) fixed to robots. But these systems run into trouble with robots in motion, which can end up in a pose that blocks the view of the target.

Helen’s answer to the problem was a new system featuring a freshly patented smart target that constantly rotates towards the vision system so that it is always visible while the robot twists and turns. Illuminated areas of interest on the target, in the shape of a cross and two rods, help the system determine where the target is located in 3D space and its angular position.

The rich positional information gained from this device could help manufacturers not only with assessing the accuracy of robots, but also for calibrating and inspecting products in real time. And the list of applications may only continue to expand as Helen continues to explore new applications for her technology.

Innovative smart target to measure 6-D information for accuracy assessment and improvement
Innovative smart target to measure 6-D information for accuracy assessment and improvement
NIST Mechanical Engineer Guixiu ‘Helen’ Qiao recently invented a novel smart target that integrates with a vision system to acquire six-dimensional (6-D) information (x, y, z, pitch, yaw, and roll) of a moving object with high accuracy. This technology is a key element of Helen’s research to develop novel test methods to assess the degradation of robot accuracy within manufacturing operations. Learn more about Helen’s research and technology transfer efforts at

Imaging Biomolecules With Tom Cleveland

NIST physicist Tom Cleveland’s winding path to the world of manufacturing started with studying termites, of all things. Spending summers collecting data on the insect for USDA high-school program kindled Tom’s interest in the science of life at the smallest scales.

While studying biophysics in college, Tom became fascinated with how biological parts come together. He deepened that passion during a pit stop at NIST’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, where he studied the structure of grains from diseased plants.

Assessing the size, shape and structure of living things and their components — objects as large as broken bones to as small as malformed cell proteins — often helps physicians diagnose medical conditions and researchers better understand diseases. Tom would go on to find out that similar evaluations are also paramount in biomanufacturing, the mass production of biological molecules.

After earning his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, Tom brought his expertise back to NIST, where he has tackled an array of questions in structural biology. His latest investigation centers on tiny oily shells known as lipid nanoparticles, which are good at packaging and delivering biomolecules to cells. In some widely available COVID vaccines, particles like these carry precious RNA cargo, genetic material that allows cells to construct small pieces of viruses and build up immunity.

Mass-producing lipid nanoparticles for applications like vaccines can create slight variations in features of the particles, such as their size and how much therapeutic payload they contain. Tom’s goal is to find out which features matter most and how much these differences affect the nanoparticles’ ability to do their jobs.

Tom tackles these questions by imaging these tiny objects. But getting a close look at the nanoparticles, which are hundreds of thousands of times smaller than a termite, is no easy task.

With a powerful imaging technique called cryogenic electron microscopy, researchers can rapidly freeze a sample without changing its structure and then use a beam of electrons to illuminate it. This technique, also called cryo-EM, can unveil incredibly intricate details, allowing Tom to clearly see and evaluate the lipid shells and their RNA payload at a crisp 120,000 times magnification.

What the research unveils could help biomanufacturers fine-tune their production processes, strengthening essential therapeutic drugs for society.

man with safety glasses sitting at a lab bench looking into a container smoking with liquid nitrogen.
NIST researcher Tom Cleveland prepares samples for cryogenic electron microscopy by attaching a reinforcing ring to the thin and delicate grid that holds the lipid nanoparticles of interest. This way, a robotic sample handler in the microscope can manipulate the grid without causing any damage. 
Credit: T. Cleveland/NIST

More Manufacturing Day: NIIMBL and NJMEP

Need more Manufacturing Day? Check out these videos about how NIST-sponsored programs ManufacturingUSA and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) are helping to make a difference in the world of manufacturing.

Increasing Diversity in Advanced Manufacturing Careers
Increasing Diversity in Advanced Manufacturing Careers
Advanced manufacturing creates millions of well-paid careers in industries from robotics to semiconductors. NIST’s sponsored Manufacturing USA® institute, NIIMBL, created the NIIMBL eXperience to offer undergraduate students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities real-world insight into careers in the biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry. The goals of the program are to raise awareness of the industry and its role in human health and well-being, as well as improve recruitment of a vast talented and diverse workforce. This story features one student’s experience in this program exploring advanced manufacturing with a mechanical engineering degree, and the industry opportunities and insights it revealed.
Resilience in Manufacturing: InCharged and NJMEP
Resilience in Manufacturing: InCharged and NJMEP
Learn how one manufacturer, with the help from their local MEP Center, was able to innovate and pivot during challenging times to not only survive but thrive while growing their business. With a background in graphic design, Jessica Gonzales, Owner and CEO of InCharged, didn’t become a manufacturer until she had an idea that needed a manufacturing solution. Through support from the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, Inc. (NJMEP), Jessica and her team were able to go from a start-up to expanding into three companies while entering new markets. The manufacturing sector offers a world of opportunity! NJMEP:… InCharged: local MEP Center:

About the author

Jonathan Griffin

Jonathan Griffin is a science writer and media liaison in the NIST public affairs office, where he tells stories about and disseminates NIST’s engineering research through several mediums. During graduate school, he transitioned from engineering research to science communication and went on to write for the University of Florida, American Geophysical Union and American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. If you catch him during his off-hours, you may find him sketching or cruising on a skateboard.

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