I am endlessly fascinated by how inventive people can be, not only in creating things but also in how they adapt existing technology to their own use. Take the microtome, a device used in clinical pathology labs to slice very thin sections of tissue to determine various disease states such as cancer. It is typically used on skin, organs, or even “fresh” brains—anything a doctor would biopsy.
Manufacturing engineers have figured out how to use these devices on mechanical parts. Who knew?
They use it on applications ranging from painted sheetmetal, to instrument panels, to various plastic parts like tubes and hoses. It is an effective alternative to techniques engineers were taught to use to examine microscopic structures and find quality defects.
Auto manufacturers like BMW, VW, Ford, GM, or Mercedes-Benz, that want to look at cross-sections of sheetmetal in car bodies, are good examples. A typical use of a microtome is to slice extremely thin sections of sheetmetal, using tough tungsten blades. These slices are normally parallel to the surface of the cut, according to Claudia Dorenkamp, global technical product manager for Leica Biosystems Inc. (Lincolnshire, IL), makers of the RM series microtomes.
Often, the goal for industrial users is to review the cut surface, either parallel or perpendicular to the surface itself, not the slice, which is of interest to clinicians.
“The advantage of this is that you see all the different layers through the skin of the car body very easily,” she explained. The alternative—the one many engineers were taught in school—is to make an embedding of the sample and grind and polish it. “But [that] means you have very soft layers which you would smear over the very hard metal piece, and then you cannot really see the different layers of the specimen very well,” explained Dorenkamp, “especially when you have different hardness of specimens.” She also noted that from time to time, car companies also section layers, such as paint or plastic laminates, in the way that clinicians do.
As more car companies have learned about the technique, its use has expanded. Dorenkamp noted that in Europe, Leica Biosystems had an applications lab for users to learn how to use the microtome. “Most of the time only industrial customers were coming to our lab,” she said. The reason, she noted, was that clinical users had been taught how to use the microtome as part of their course of study. Not so industrial and manufacturing engineers, who were taught only the embedding and grinding technique. It was, to a degree, a matter of education. It has since become so popular with many of the car companies that many insisted that each of their manufacturing plants have the same exact style of microtome configured the same way.
Many other industrial customers, such as cable companies, plastic injection manufacturers and packagers, are already using microtomes. Yet new industrial customers are still learning about the microtome and its qualities—typically through word-of-mouth between industrial users and the individual work of sales representatives. “We see this equipment, which was designed for clinical use, moving into the industrial market in North America,” said Ryan Gresavage, senior marketing manager, Americas—pathology for Leica Biosystems. “The biggest thing is just making each other aware of what the capabilities and needs are. We also need to better understand what the industrial side’s problems are. It is a two-way dialogue.”
But should the onus be only on Leica Biosystems? It would behoove us, in the industrial world, to be as open-minded as we can be when searching for new solutions—even to the point of looking at things that can slice brains just as easily as thin metal sections.