Spectrumedix LLC

SpectruMedix LLC., State College, PA

Mar 2001 - Nov 2002 Senior Electronics Design Engineer

Spectrumedix was one of the best experiences an engineer could possibly have. We were using Agile techniques for software and hardware development before the Agile approach was formalized. That is, there were 'user stories', the wish list items, scrums, we didn't do waterfall charts to my knowledge, but Tom Kane, the scrummaster in all likelyhood kept something similar to report to Ilan Reich, we had stand-ups, pair (peer) programming (Brian Quay - Sean O'Connel), and other Agile tactics. Retrospectively, and I think without selective memory, this was a potent team and despite occasional and understandable diagreement, accomplished Herculaen task of not only developing a functional system, but a user-friendly, safe and UL/CE certified system! To fully appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment, read below to the section describing the 'red flag' hardware that had to be reliably controlled. Wow!
The To Be Continued.....

John Best's Spectrumedix business card Responsible for hardware design, documentation and agency certifications (CE / UL) for model SCE9610 Genetics Analysis System. These systems contained a 30kV power supply, 35W laser, high pressure (approx 4000 PSI) gel pump, and a pneumatic/stepper motor driven sample handler. The system was controlled from National Instrument interfaces and Labview.

Before getting into the reason I was hired (the SCE9610 genetic sequencer), let me note a number of smaller concept-to-deployment projects which were also under the job description of 'other duties as necessary'.
These projects involved:

The following is a 'placeholder list', and I can detail these little projects if requested.

Background: Spectrumedix arose from the buyout of a State College PA company called 'Nuclide'. Founded in 1961 by Leonard Hertzog (obituary), Nuclide was instrumental in the development of mass spectrometry. In subsequent decades Agilent and other companies with extreme resources cam into competition with Nuclide.
By 1992, Joe Adlerstein was able to buy out Nuclide to form Spectrumedix. Adlerstein at some point acquired intelledctual property from the Iowa State University to allow Spectrumedix to begin development of a new product, the SCE9610 genetics sequencing system. Tom Kane, a PhD Chemist took charge of building the first prototypes, and with help from a talented mechanical designer, John Kernan, brought together the first prototypes. The electrical infrastructure at this time was a 'wire as you go' result of adding National Instrument control cards as needed, adding software features, and hardware control features via a main interface PCB using 4 Basic Stamp modules to serve as keyboard handlers, I/O controllers, etc. Essentially they served as PLC's.

While I stand by my statement that "Spectrumedix was one of the best experiences an engineer could possibly have.", outside the view of us engineers and chemists who were "in the trenches" of getting the product more robustly re-designed, at higher levels the seeds were being sewn for Joe Adlersteins replacement.. If you haven't decided to skip down to my responsibilities and accomplishments yet, I'll proceed with describing why Specrumedix is now defunct, as this is the reason I can go into details which would otherwise have to be kept confidential.

Joe Adlerstein was replaced by new majority shareholder Ilan Reich, who had inhereted a high risk proposition from day one. Reich entrusted Thomas E. Kane PhD Chemistry as VP of Research and Development, to carry the deveopment forward. Tom was my immediate advisor, supervisor, nemesis, and general fountain of all knowledge outside electrical engineering. ;-) to Tom. Tom similarly entrusted me with responsibility to continue hardware development in a direction that would solve existing reliability problems and prepare the system design for CE certification.

Tom rightly insisted that changes be well justified and validated. On occasion this caused the need to excercize great diplomacy and perhaps a bit of slightly tense interplay between myself and Tom, as we were approaching design validation from a Scientists view (Tom) vs. an Engineering method (myself). In hindsight, neither of us realized the fundamentally different reasons the ways of validation rightly are different in these fields! This may seem like a bit of 'Waxing Philosophically', but in hindsight, it was part of a great experience in getting the task accomplished and working with very bright but very different people. Tom and I and several others on the team, Brian Quay, Sean McConnel, Scott Goodman, John Kern, Brandon Tarr, Steve Lauver, Aaron Gilbert, and many others outside the Engineering department soldiered on and made the required changes creating the new 9610, which passed independent CE certification by independant testing and certification by MET LABS, on the first attempt, and went on to sell more than 100 units.

Before we discuss the original (pre-CE) 9610, let's pause and acknowledge the discomfort of discussing the flaws the pre-CE prototypes contained. I feel it is vitally important to emphasize that the accomplishment of building the first couple of prototypes was significant. The 'flaws' (new word please?) were perfectly understandable in an environment of rapid paced development with emphasis on data quality (macro view of system operation) while instrumentation issues (ground loops, parasitic coupling, inadequate HF power supply, etc) were just outside the experience of the early team. If we use the 'V' model of validation used in modern system validation, we would see the practice before I arrived on the scene was to validate at the top level, the user or application level.

I do not claim to have implemented or formally used the V model, but we did use something akin to a V model by a combination of common sense, necessity and serendipity. My contribution was in what I've called 'internal' validations, which were both at the system level and board level, and in low level electronics measurements with which the user would never be concerned. Indeed these were the lower levels of a V model. Simple V model, Wikipedia. Note that though th V model is often applied to software validation, there are many derivitives and it seems to work well with hardware design and mixed hardware/software/firmware systems. Perhaps now we need a 'W' model. ;-)

In any case, the first 10 systems had a few 'reasonable oversights', and there was an enormous amount of excellent work. So I do not criticize my predecessors in any way, but the techniques used to design a custom system for one-time PhD thesis research in a University environment (litterally only having to operate on a lab bench) and the product design techniques engineers employ for robust, safe, field (perhaps even consumer) deployment are not the same. The pre-CE design team did great work though and the first generation of systems (about ten), produced good data. I took over the task of making the corrections with the benefit of much good work and learning to build on.

That said, the task entailed making fundamental changes in the internal interconnectivity, isolation, power distribution, shielding and other areas, and naturally, it required diplomacy and perseverance to convince parts of the original design team that these seemingly big changes were needed. So, after a thorough system review, documenting the key portions of the system current flow net, and careful explanation as to root causes, failure modes, and remedies, the team got behind the proposed changes. We made the changes, and as you know from the preceeding paragraph, the changes did their job.

It should be noted that in addition to system level (top level of 'V') validation (by examining end-user sequencing data against standards) that internal electrical validations were also performed to confirm that 'trouble currents' were now being routed properly and not creating common-mode or other induced parasitic effects. This second 'internal' electrical validation at the net and component level was something I had done on many previous occasions, with ELMDAS Co., and on all new designs at LeMont Scientific, Inc. These validations provided me and a few others elecronics oriented people with a signinficant amount of confidence that we would be deploying a very robust solution. This additional internal electrical validation also had a great side benefit in providing many 'teaching moments' in which junior engineers and technicians could see subtle electronic parasitics and learn more sophisticated instrumentation techniques in setting up an oscilliscope, logic analyzer, and other instrumentation. Again, these issues afecting robustness and reliability really seem to be best visible at the lower levels of the 'V' model.

The specific hardware design issues were:

Model SCE9610 Genetics Analysis System
While fully acknowledging the hugh amount of effort and inginuity required to get the system to the stage of serial number 10(or thereabouts) objectively it has to be noted the the system was "unavoidably intrinsically hazardous" in that it necessarily contained 'red flag' components, that is, high voltage (30KV) power, Class 4 (35W) laser, high pressure (4-5000 PSI) fluid pressures, pneumatics, the presense of conductive liquid polymers in the HV current path, the need to move multi-well sample trays into the conductive path, along with more 'typical' 240 VAC power distribution issues. This was an enormously risk-laden environment, and despite the fact that on more than one occasion, these early 'prototypes' caught fire in the field, I will say unequivically that given the 'red flag' nature of so many components, and how they must be orchestrated, the prototype systems were indeed a marvelous accomplishment. That said, a second phase of development was necessary to acheive the robustness, performance and saftey nesessary to place the 9610 genetic sequencer on the domestic and world markets in any greater quantity. So, through careful dissection and redesign, a reliable and safe system was placed in production and over 100 systems were sold.

It is most unfortunate that despite the hard work of a talented team, changes in technology by ABI and others made the SCE9610 relatively expensive, and Spectrumedix failed as a company.

  • System design responsibility for CE/UL/FCC certification of genetic sequencing systems using class IV lasers and high voltage
  • Significantly modified design of prototype genetic sequencer to pass CE (Compliance European) EMC standards System passed on first try
  • Project leader for UL/CE approval of support components
  • Design, PCB layout, build, test and validation of support devices such as polymer dispensing pumps, temperature controller calibration system, and sub-systems to the SCE9610. These sub-systems included optical isolation and high power control sub-systems, arc-over detection system, motor control logic, etc.
  • Microcontroller programming, embedded uP programming, C
  • Mechanical design, PCB design, layout, documentation and production implementation
  • Engineering support interface for Marketing, Production and Service departments
  • Supervised activities of Electronics engineer, Mechanical designer and Documentarian