Hadron Collider question

I was watching Angels and Demons and got to wondering, who makes the parts for the supercolliders of the world? But even more importantly, who makes the parts that make the parts for the colliders?

It seems like you could keep regressing that way until you finally found some machines that make more generic parts that would also be used for other purposes.

In other words, what makes that which makes that which makes…

Hope that’s not too confusing.

At least some parts of the LHC (at CERN, in Europe) were made in Fermilab, America’s primary particle-physics center and CERN’s only real competitor (a friendly rivalry, of course). What isn’t available off the shelf is made by the scientists themselves in machine shops, doing things like starting with a solid block of aluminum and grinding it down in a lathe to the exact shape you want. The lathes and other machine-shop tools are very general-purpose, and can be used to make almost anything: For almost any object you see around the house, the first prototypes were probably made in similar machine shops, using similar tools.

The things that are available off the shelf all have uses other than in scientific equipment, and can come from a wide variety of sources, depending on the ingenuity of the scientists in knowing where to look for things. Piano wire, for instance, has a surprisingly large number of uses in scientific projects. And retractable tape measures have been used as antennas on many satellites.

I hand-made some of the circuit boards that were used at Fermilab. Our department also made some of the particle detectors - large aluminum frames with tungsten wires strung on a fine grid. Each wire went to an input on the boards I made.

The generic name for machines that are used to fabricate other machines is “machine tools”.

Industrial equipment can be made up from a number of various resources. Thousands of specialty companies around the world make millions of various catalog parts and pieces (pneumatics, relays, contacts, fuses, bearings, sensors, etc, etc.) Then there’s thousands of companies that will custom make pieces for you. And then, like others have said, you can make your own parts and pieces in house. Most major manufacturers have a tooling division for this or can outsource it.

I think the favourite single bit of equipment is a large multi-axis numerically controlled milling machine. Many CAD tools can spit out toolpath files for these in one step now. So design it, and slice it out of a solid billet of metal. Lovely.

Scientists (or more likely, graduate students) may make fixtures and simple windings for prototypes, but for large scale multi-million dollar experiments the equipment will be designed by engineers (mechanical, electrical, materials science and depending on the scale of the project, perhaps even civil engineers) and components fabricated by commercial or specialty fabricators, all under the oversight or one or more scientists and meeting the ultimate specifications required for the test capability that is desired by the experimenters. Here is an article that lists some of the suppliers who fabricated, installed, or otherwise integrated components for the superconducting magnets, power supplies, main structure, and plumbing for the Large Hadron Collider.

All of these components are made, of course, by more-or-less standard fabrication processes: welding, forging, casting, sintering, drawing, winding, machining, et cetera. Many small components, like fasteners, scaffolding, wiring, et cetera, is mostly commercial off the shelf (COTS) hardware, while stuff like very high voltage power converters, helium chillers, and the magnets themselves are all specially built components that are fabricated to specifications laid out by engineers to meet the performance requirements of the scientists overseeing the project. The LHC itself is a massive engineering project, on a similar scale to the Manhattan Project or the development of the Saturn rocket family, in addition to being a scientific instrument capable of providing groundbreaking results.


Although this is off-topic, I was amazed to see my dentist make a cap using one of those machines. After extracting the root in the usual way, he then used a probe connected to a computer to work out the exact shape required for the cap. He then went into another room where the milling machine was and, after a few minutes of grinding along all axes, a perfect cap emerged from a solid block of metal and the dentist was able to glue it on right then and there. I was astonished.