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First NWO-I workshop for technicians held

Marco de Baar (DIFFER) and Patrick Werneke (Nikhef) about the importance of collaboration and sharing knowledge
At the NWO Institutes, important scientific discoveries could not be made without the support of technicians. Engineers, instrument makers, electronic specialists, ICT professionals: they are all part of the large group of technicians who work at NWO-I. ‘Without technical support, you’re stuck. It is vital at all levels of science, from instrument making to Big Science’, says DIFFER director Marco de Baar. And the institutes do not work independently in that regard, explains Patrick Werneke, head of Mechanical Technology at Nikhef: ‘DIFFER will soon switch to our drawing system. Then they will make use of our knowledge and investments. That saves a lot of time and money.’ A series of workshops for NWO-I technicians must further strengthen this knowledge sharing and collaboration.

AMOLF director Huib Bakker recently took the initiative to organise several workshops for technicians from all NWO-I departments. Marco, Patrick, Dico Kruining (AMOLF) and Yetzo de Hoo (NIOZ) formed a committee, and the first workshop has already been held. On 21 April 2022, NWO Institute DIFFER in Eindhoven hosted the first hybrid workshop for NWO-I technicians with the theme “control technology”. Marco was pleased about the great turnout, and in his opening speech, he expressed the hope that coming together like this would stimulate collaboration and, of course, the sharing of knowledge. He tells Inside NWO-I what technicians mean for DIFFER.

Marco de Baar, institute director DIFFER

Marco: ‘We employ many technicians at DIFFER who work in instrument making, the design department or in the ICT department in our computer groups. But there are also technicians who are part of the scientific departments. Many of them are young - PhDs and postdocs - who often advance to jobs in Eindhoven’s industry such as ASML, or in Big Science such as ITER (an international collaborative project that aims to demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of nuclear fusion as a source of energy on earth, ed.) or become a group leader within DIFFER. NWO-I has a very diverse research landscape, whereas the core competencies of technicians are institute-wide. That provides a unique opportunity for institutes to work together. For example, Nikhef is working on the Einstein Telescope, a very complex construction that requires control technology and system engineering. DIFFER can work together with Nikhef in those areas, and exchange knowledge. Seeking such collaboration is the most important driver behind organising these NWO-I-wide workshops for technicians.’ 

Patrick Werneke, head of Mechanical Technology at Nikhef

Patrick states that Nikhef has three technical departments: his own Department Mechanical Technology, Electronic Technology under the leadership of Ruud Kluit and the Computer Technology department led by Ronald Starink. Patrick studied aerospace engineering and did a master’s in business administration. According to him, the backgrounds of the technicians within Nikhef are highly diverse. ‘We have colleagues from mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering, applied physics and precision mechanics. Additionally, many colleagues come from the LiS instrument makers school, and from regional education centres (ROC). Each background has its own specialism; for example, there are university of applied sciences graduates who have a very practical mindset. People from colleges of further education are very good with their hands, which is exactly what an instrument maker needs. In principle, we produce everything that has to be designed here at the institute.’

Visiting each other

Nikhef is located at the Amsterdam Science Park, and the NWO Institutes CWI, AMOLF and ARCNL, and the University of Amsterdam (UvA) are literally just around the corner. ‘We often take a look at what’s happening at AMOLF and UvA, and vice versa. That is particularly the case when you need someone to lend you a hand. DIFFER is switching to a drawing system that we already have, and we are pleased to share our knowledge. ASTRON also works with this system, and together we discuss how you can solve problems. And even though the Netherlands is a small country, Leiden (where SRON is located, ed.) still takes some effort to travel to. So it’s great that several institutes are located so close to each other.’

Time to rejuvenate and challenging projects

Patrick has worked for Nikhef since 1993. ‘A lot of Nikhef personnel are now retiring and many young new people are joining us. However, we still struggle to find good and experienced people.’ Yet the fact that Patrick has worked at Nikhef for so long means that he must be happy there. And he confirms that: ‘At KM3NeT, you work underwater, at ATLAS many metres underground and in the vicinity of the Einstein Telescope, we are in a vacuum with a very low temperatures. Each project is different and that’s what makes working here so unique. You always have a good story to tell when you arrive back home. Nowadays, everybody knows about CERN!’ Patrick further describes his department that has 31 employees. Half of them are instrument makers, and the other half engineers. They use computers to calculate, design and construct. Drawings are produced from those designs and subsequently the components are produced and the equipment built. In the past, we mainly did work for CERN, but now a growing number of projects are being added to this. We have a fixed number of personnel funded from the institute’s mission budget. The growing number of projects often means there is high time pressure. The LHC (the particle accelerator Large Hadron Collider at CERN, ed.) was shut down for several years, and Nikhef technicians for the LHCb and ALICE (experiments that take place deep under the ground as part of the LHC, ed.) have helped to make and install new detectors. This week, the LHC will be started up again. Our work seems simple, but is actually very complex. For example, you build a prototype, and then install it, only to find out that it doesn’t fit … This is not the kind of equipment you’d build from scratch twice. In such instances, it’s up to the instrument maker to solve the problem. That requires a lot of knowledge and expertise, especially to maintain the high quality.’

‘This is where networks come into play, as then you can find somebody within NWO-I who can help you with your problem.’

Importance of workshops for technicians

The stories of Marco and Patrick show how diverse the work of technicians within an institute is, let alone between the different institutes. But, there is certainly overlap too. The NWO-I workshops are a good opportunity for technicians to share knowledge with each other. ‘It is a chance to learn more about subjects you’re not familiar with. You never know what you might discover. Or you might learn something during a tour of the technical department of another institute. And it’s just fun too. You meet new people with a wide range of backgrounds, and you note their names. Although you might not need it now, in a year’s time, this network could come in handy’, says Patrick. ‘And I speak from experience because the technical heads of the institutes have shared knowledge for years by visiting each other’s institutes. That allows you to make many new contacts, and that makes it easier to pick up the phone and ask somebody a question. This is the purpose of networking: to be able to contact somebody within NWO-I who can help you with a problem.’

New building

Finally, Patrick shares a brief update about the new building in which Nikhef is now located. ‘We’re already housed in the new part of the building. In the past, the engineers and instrument makers worked in separate parts of the building. Now, all of the offices adjoin each other. And the allocation of the space is also better because it is based on projects. To improve communications, some instrument makers now share office space with engineers. The workshop logistics have been redesigned and improved as well. And, as far as I’m concerned, we’re located in the best part of the building because we have large steel doors with a lot of glass and light. Plus, we’re close to the central square for meetings or to simply grab a cup of coffee with a colleague.’

Examples of technical work at Nikhef

Production of measurement equipment for KM3NeT
Patrick describes a collaborative research project with NIOZ, which required measurement equipment in the form of detector spheres on lines for the neutrino detector KM3NeT. These spheres were sunk to a depth of 2400 metres in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Toulon. ‘At Nikhef, we first produced the prototypes and subsequently, we needed to make 500 of those spheres. We outsourced the production of certain components because it was repetitive work, but the rest of the “production” was too complex to outsource. It is unique manual work that you cannot simply procure from somewhere. We also carry out the quality control ourselves.’

Technical work at CERN
Nikhef is part of the international collaboration CERN in Switzerland, where the particle accelerator Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has been built deep underground. Patrick: ‘Many Nikhef technicians go there. From 2006 onwards, I worked there for 2.5 years as a project engineer at ATLAS, one of the experiments at the LHC that Nikhef was involved in. The detectors had to be finished and installed, which made it convenient to go and live there for a while. On the other hand, I also have colleagues who travel back and forth to CERN each week, and that is rather tough. Especially when you have a family.’

Preparations for the Einstein Telescope
In mid-April, it was announced that the Dutch government has embraced plans for building the Einstein Telescope in the border region of South Limburg. The plans concern a future underground observatory for the measurement of gravitational waves. Nikhef is closely involved in this, says Patrick. ‘Our technicians produced the videos for the project proposals and publications, which are used in the media (Nikhef director Stan Bentvelsen appeared on 17 May on the Dutch news programme RTL XL-Late Night to explain the plans, ed.). Colleague Marco Kraan, a mechanical engineer, is very good at that. We also produced small-scale test setups. Eric Hennes, a physicist within the department, is even selling simple versions of those.’ Another example that Patrick mentions within this project is the ETpathfinder. The goal is to make the Einstein Telescope far more accurate than the existing gravitational wave observatories. That requires new and better technologies, and certain aspects of these still need to be developed. For this, the ETpathfinder, a special R&D lab in Maastricht, has been set up. Nikhef technicians are closely involved in that too. ‘Several of our technicians work there one week each month to realise a developmental setup and technology’, says Patrick.a

Text: Melissa Vianen
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, June 2022
You can find the archive of the newsletter Inside NWO-I on the NWO-I website.

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