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Machine Tools: From Russia With Levitation

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ENGINEERS AT NEW JERSEY Institute of Technology in Newark are trying to build superaccurate machine tools by teaming U.S. electronics wizardry and Russian mechanical skill. Reggie J. Caudill, executive director of the school's Center for Manufacturing Systems, says he was amazed at the sophistication of a grinder from Russia that the U.S. Army gave NJIT for evaluation. Both the cutting parts and the pieces being worked on are partially isolated from harmful vibration by cushions of air. In Western tools, only some of the relevant components are suspended by air jets. NJIT bought a Russian lathe that was even more impressive: As an additional means of eliminating vibration, Caudill says, the lathe's motor disengages after it gets the part spinning, relying on momentum alone to continue the rotation.

NJIT is working with AT&T, Motorola, Ford Motor, and others on using Russian techniques to build robots that could, for instance, precisely align optical fibers and lenses in optoelectronic gear. NJIT wants to add U.S. electronics to Russian tools, such as microscopic sensors and valves, that could counteract vibration by detecting and adjusting pressure fluctuations in the air cushions. Separately, Caudill hopes to produce a lathe that could shape lenses so perfectly that they would not require costly, time-consuming hand-polishing.EDITED BY PETER COY

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