Custom Instrumentation Solutions for Scientific and Engineering Challenges

A Project Roadmap

With whom does the IDL collaborate?

The Instrumentation Design Laboratory at the University of Kansas builds custom instrumentation to solve both large and small scientific challenges. The IDL works with all researchers who might benefit:

  • The Lab partners with researchers in all areas of science and engineering at KU.
  • The IDL works with researchers at other universities, national labs, and independent research laboratories.
  • The IDL partners with businesses. Business collaborations require additional protocols, but are encouraged at KU. More information about these collaborations is available on the Core Research Resource Lab portal website.

There are two exceptions:

  • the IDL is not available to repair commercial instruments.
  • the IDL does not build instruments that are available on the market. (However, a project which makes advances on the commercial instrument will be considered.)

All projects are collaborations. To achieve the greatest success, it is necessary to work together throughout all stages of the project. A typical project follows this Project Roadmap.

Exploration:  How is a Project Started?

The Problem:  A project starts with a problem needing a solution.  The first step is to define the physical nature of that problem.

The Discussion:  That leads to a discussion of the problem and a search for potential solutions. Often the researcher has a good idea of the solution. Even so, the IDL staff would like to understand the experiment, not just the immediate problem, so that the search is not pre­maturely narrowed.

A meeting including the researcher and IDL staff is a useful way to start this exploration.  In most cases, this meeting includes the project PI.

Cost Estimate: With a potential approach, the IDL can attempt a cost estimate. We will try to be realistic, but often the estimate cannot be guaranteed. However, we usually come close as long as design specs don't change.  As researchers know, a development process has many unknowns.

Feasibility involves not only determining whether the project is within the realm of possibility. (We like to think that projects are rarely impossible.) The available timeline and available budget will probably be bigger questions.
Preparation:  Developing the plan

Design Specifications: The researcher and the IDL should spell out the design specifications for both hardware and software.   Design specs include items like speed, size, methods of interaction and communication.

The design specs are never final, but they are always the basis for developing the project.

Collaborative Responsibilities:  Are there parts of the project that the research group will carry out?  For example, who will write the user software? Who will test components of the project? Who will devise performance tests? Will machining be required?

External Support: If a grant proposal is envisioned, it can be beneficial to explicitly write the project into the proposal.

The IDL can help with the text. A prototype might provide some preliminary results.


Projects may last from a few hours to a calendar year or more. The timeline is affected by the schedule for other projects in the Lab and by the availability of components, among other things. If there is a deadline, please inform us early.

Do not hesitate to check in on progress. Communication during the process is helpful to the best possible solution. We are always happy to show our progress and get feedback early.

Testing:  Alpha and Beta

When the instrument or a component is operational, the IDL will test to the extent possible, but accurate input signals or devices to control may not be available. Furthermore, only the researcher can tell if the concept has been converted to instrumentation with accuracy.

The alpha test usually  will be the demonstration of the system in the IDL.  The beta test may be in the researcher's lab.

In any cases, someone needs to try it out. From the developer point of view, it would be rare for an instrument to be the perfect translation of the original concept to a final instrument before the alpha test.  It would be rare to  be totally “bug-free” before the beta test. Further development will be expected. 


Depending on the user and the complexity of the instrument, the extent of documentation will vary. The IDL will provide operation documentation for both hardware and software. Good documentation also requires the user's input and testing.  The level of documentation required may depend on the users.

The IDL keeps all hardware, firmware, and software documentation on file “in perpetuity.”

Final Testing
Only the researcher can give the instrument its final test. Feedback is greatly appreciated.

The IDL bills for materials, shipping costs, and lab time.

Lab time fees are used by the IDL to cover the operating expenses of the IDL (computers, test equipment, internet/phone, personnel development, etc. and a portion of staff salaries). Lab time is billed by the hour at rates shown below.

For some projects that result in a complete turn-key instrument, the entire cost is billed as a single item and can be paid for as an instrument purchase.

When the project is planned in advance, some PI's include a fractional appointment of 5% or more for one or more IDL staff. This replaces the Lab time listed above. These appointments are valuable to the ongoing operation of the IDL.

Currently, the Lab time fees are as follows:

KU and affiliates $29/hr  
Other academic institutions or non-profit research entities $45/hr  
Industrial/Corporate $80/hr  
Publication and Recognition

In all KU Core Resource Labs, the collaboration should be recognized.

Joint authorship is appropriate for any paper that introduces or describes the development of a new instrument.

If the project only consists of assembly without development, acknowledgement will be appropriate.

You might consult the relevant guidelines posted by the Mass Spec Lab.


The need for significant changes may reveal itself after completion. Often changes can be made without opening a new project or without charge. Indeed, this is an advantage to development with the IDL:  as the experiment grows, the instrument may adapt. 

Please visit with the director to review the project.

Project Flowchart

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