abandon all hope ye robots who enter


 Santa Barbara News Press

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Article in the Santa Barbara News Press on 11/14/2001

photos by Mike Eliason

Utter precision morphs into art



Some might say Machine Arts is an oxymoron. After all, how artistic can you get with a machine? Considering the kind of work done by Jeffrey Sipress and his employees, however, the company's name is an apt appellation.

Machine Arts specializes in high-precision machining and prototype development, most often for the medical device and integrated circuit industries.

The company also does milling and turning, cosmetic surface finishing, tool and fixture design and fabrication, aluminum and stainless steel welding, and assembly and testing.

"We do concentrate on medical instrumentation such as surgical robotic assistants and medical video systems," said Mr. Sipress. "We provide service in the form of custom manufacturing parts and components. We provide the service to the larger companies that make and market these products."

Customers include Computer Motion, a local company that develops, manufactures and markets proprietary computer and robotic surgical systems for use in operating rooms; ThauMDx, which has developed a new diagnostic platform and bioassay detection system based on the phenomenon of evanescent waves; and Karl Storz Imaging, a developer and manufacturer of endoscopic instrumentation.

Machine Arts also has worked with the United States government on infrared testing technology and with the electronics industry on machines that make integrated circuits.

"Another major thing we do is vacuum sputtering systems," Mr. Sipress said. "That has to do with the manufacture of integrated circuits."

Vacuum sputtering systems are used in the electronics industry to deposit thin films of metal or other materials during the integrated circuit manufacturing process.

The most interesting project he's worked on, however, has been the surgical robot for Computer Motion, he said.

"We were involved in the development from the very beginning. From there it went to production and we still make the parts. It was very exciting bringing it to life. We've had so many opportunities to do that with many companies," he said.

With experience in both engineering and machining, Mr. Sipress brings a dual perspective to his work.

"My personal background is engineering, and I've also worked as a machinist for nearly 30 years," he said. He got his start when he answered an advertisement in the classified section of the newspaper and ended up in a machine shop where the more experienced machinists were willing to show him the ropes.

"Then I started to see how that related to my engineering education. After machining for so many years I ended up advancing back into the engineering department and worked as a quality engineer and a design engineer."

That experience, he said, allows him to communicate with his clients, most of whom are design engineers, effectively and efficiently.

Mr. Sipress established Machine Arts as a one-man operation 10 years ago and now has a staff of 14. While the art of machining hasn't changed much in the last decade, he said, advancements in software, computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) have made the transmission of information easier and more efficient.

Engineers send electronic CAD files to Machine Arts where the data is converted to CNC, or "computer numerically controlled" programs. Then the CNC machines produce the metal and plastic parts.

"We can make parts from that same data just by sharing the same files," he said. "People will e-mail me a note saying, 'Can you do this little thing?' and it will have a CAD attachment. It's real accurate, convenient and a great time saver."

Despite the recent downturn in the economy, the machines at Machine Arts are humming as steadily as ever. Business, Mr. Sipress said, is good.

"There's a unique phenomenon with the medical industry in this country. It has its own economy. It just keeps going on. No matter what the stock market does, people need medical care and there's always money being budgeted to develop equipment and devices," he said.

"The same thing goes for the integrated circuit manufacturers. Regardless of how the current market is for integrated circuits, they've got to keep money flowing into research and development so they'll have new product to sell in two years."

The projects his employees are working on right now won't be marketable for two years or so, he said.

"Technology and research and development have to continue, and that's something that has kept us steady."

Besides, he added, it's not so much how the whole economy is doing, but how well a business's specific customers are faring.

"I've been pretty lucky with these two industries," he said.

As if medical devices and integrated circuits aren't enough to keep Machine Arts busy, Mr. Sipress has become a major sponsor of a local "BattleBot" team called Infernolab. A one-man organization founded and operated by Jason Dante Bardis, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara, Infernolab designs and creates electromechanical robots, mechanisms and devices.

Dr. Inferno Jr., one of Mr. Bardis' creations, competed on Comedy Central's "BattleBots" television series last season and won the lightweight championship.

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