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Models for innovation
From supercomputers to Watson’s thumb: The nuts and bolts behind the research

Alan Morrison and his team have helped IBM Research scientists build everything from supercomputers to custom nuts and bolts. They lead a team of designers and machinists at the IBM Thomas J Watson Research Center’s model shop that help prototype, develop and repair everything from a small screw with unique threading to a giant furnace to test the durability of ceramics.

The model shop works with an electronics and microfabrication team at the lab to complete many of the projects. While much of what they build is only for experimentation, they have contributed to numerous IBM Research breakthroughs. For example, the water-based cooling system, airflow and raised flooring for the Blue Gene supercomputer systems – which have been honored with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation - was developed with the assistance of the shop.

And then there was the first fabricated thumb in television quiz show history.

IBM Watson, the DeepQA system that appeared on the U.S. trivia show Jeopardy! in February of 2011 had to play the game as closely as possible to its human competition. This meant pressing a buzzer when attempting to respond to a clue.

Watsons thumb
Watson's mechanical 'thumb', fabricated by the IBM Research
Model Shop
Alan, the model shop’s manager, got the job to give Watson the ability to press a button just like the human contestants. Working with the electronics team, it took about a week to rig up a connection between Watson and an electronic solenoid plunger, which is a tightly wound coil, to press the buzzer. At one point the plunger made a loud clanking sound when it pressed the button – not something that could happen on TV. The team deadened the sound with a clear acrylic cover that also gave the “thumb” its attractive cylindrical appearance.

But the team had bigger problems than a noisy clicker. Players can’t press the buzzer until host Alex Trebek finishes reading the clue and a light under the game board appears. Watson could not hear the clue or see the light. It was instead sent a signal indicating when the light turned on. Coordinating the timing – ensuring that Watson would wait the required minimum of four milliseconds it might take a human to respond – turned out to be a challenge. By adjusting some of the software code and making an adjustment to a single screw on the thumb, they were able to get Watson to adhere to Jeopardy's standard.

It's rare to come in and spend the entire day doing what you thought you would do. You never know what new project is going to come through the door.

Inside the shop

The team in the machine shop is comprised of designers and model makers, who juggle as many as 10 projects at a time. But they all start the same way: a research scientist needs to test an idea.

Recently, a railroad transportation company asked IBM Research to help them find a way to spot track defects. The researchers, in turn, came to the machine shop with an idea: mount cameras, connected to a computer with customized software and a GPS to the bumper of a car that can drive at high speeds on 21,000 miles of track.

“The wheels on the car were modified by the railroad to fit the rails. The cameras had to be adjustable – and stable enough to enable the computer to detect things like missing spikes, cracked ties and rails. Oh, and the cameras couldn’t get dust on them,” said Alan. “We spent many days out on the tracks working on the problem, making adjustments and ultimately testing a successful prototype. Even though we were outside in the middle of winter it was a lot of fun.”

A lasting impression

Time capsule
John Kelly III, Director of IBM Research, is joined by former CEOs
(left to right) Sam Palmisano, John Akers and Lou Gertsner.

Some of the team’s creations exist only for a short time and are only glimpsed by a select few.

In 2011, IBM celebrated its 100th anniversary with an elaborate event at the IBM Thomas J Watson Research Center. That same year marked the 50th anniversary of the facility itself.

As part of the 50th anniversary celebration, IBM Director of Research and Senior Vice President John Kelly III, then-IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, and former CEOs Lou Gerstner and John Akers installed a time capsule in the floor of the facility’s lobby. Who made the capsule? You guessed it.

And in perhaps the most fitting tribute to IBM Research’s machine shop magicians, sealed inside that capsule along with technology and ephemera of the time is Watson’s mechanical thumb.

From robot thumbs, to cameras on wheels on train tracks, as model maker and team leader Bob Meinel sums up: “it’s rare to come in and spend the entire day doing what you thought you would do. You never know what new project is going to come through the door.”

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Meet the researchers

  • Alan Morrison portrait image

    Alan Morrison

    Manager, Model Shop
    Thomas J Watson Research Center

  • Bob Meinel portrait image

    Bob Meinel

    Model Maker
    Thomas J Watson Research Center


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