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Quiet UB lab has become the ‘go to’ fault finder for WNY businesses

Peter Bush, a forensic dentistry expert, helps Western New York businesses build better products. Credit: Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo.

Electron microscope and other devices scrutinize everything from auto parts to human heads

By Grove Potter

Release Date: November 14, 2016

“When a problem occurs that we can’t analyze in our lab, we call on Peter to do a more exhaustive study.”
Jim Waris, customer quality supervisor
Jiffy-Tite, a Lancaster-based firm

Inside the South Campus Instrument Center.

A closeup look at the South Campus Instrument Center.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Among the services the University at Buffalo supplies to local companies, none may be as ‘real-time’ as the investigative work done by Peter Bush in his research lab. Companies large and small call Bush, bring their problems to his laboratory in the Biomedical Research Building on South Campus, and usually have an answer in a day or two.

Using a scanning electron microscope and other sophisticated machinery, Bush can sleuth out product defects, material flaws and other microscopic problems that keep quality control managers up at night.

The lab Bush runs, called the South Campus Instrument Center, is a quiet center of quality, a jewel in the academic/professional ecosystem where a research university plays a significant role in how things get made in its surrounding region.

“Part of our success is that I operate on an industry timescale,” said Bush, “Turnaround is never more than a week,” and sometimes less than a full day.

Passed on by word of mouth

Knowledge of the lab and the work it does is passed around by word of mouth. “We have never advertised,” Bush said. “People just come to us.”

For small firms that cannot afford the equipment Bush uses, access to the lab is critical.

“We are a manufacturer of diamond sawing blades. We deposit diamonds on the tools,” said Albert Bluemle, president of Niabraze LLC, a 15-person firm in Tonawanda. “We leaned on Peter to give us an analysis of the steel we are using. We compare it to the quality of steel our competitors are using.”

The firm, which sells globally, has been using Bush’s services for about 20 years.

“I could always count on Peter,” Bluemle said. “He has an array of analytical equipment there that could be a benefit to other small businesses.”

At Jiffy-Tite, a Lancaster-based firm that makes quick-connect fittings for the automotive industry, Bush has been “our go-to,” said Jim Waris, customer quality supervisor. Several times a year, Waris will bring an item to the lab for analysis.

“When a problem occurs that we can’t analyze in our lab, we call on Peter to do a more exhaustive study,” he said.

The research can go beyond what is visible, into the metallic characteristics of the item.

For example: “Recently Jiffy-tite had a part returned from the customer with an aluminum chip inside. Using UB equipment Peter was able to determine the chip was not of the same metallurgical content as our part. Getting professional results back quickly helps both Jiffy-tite and its customers get to the true root cause of the problem that much sooner.”

Waris added: “The fees are very reasonable. If Peter charges us a few hundred dollars, taking it to someone else would cost thousands and take much more time.”

At Metal Cladding, a Lockport company, Bush’s ability to do quality work rapidly has made a difference. The 70-person company was considering using a metal from abroad, but Bush confirmed that the material was substandard.

“He has been able to ferret out issues and problems before they have gotten into a serious vein where they could have cost a great deal of money,” said owner Fred Robb. “Had I bought that faulty material, it could have been very costly.”

Gruesome discoveries

But not all the mysteries that come into Bush’s lab are commercial or academic. He recalled a time when two state troopers from Pennsylvania came into his lab with a beer cooler. Inside was a human head.

“A kid walking home from school had found a severed head on the roadside,” Bush said. “At the same time, the police were aware of a desecrated grave in the neighboring county, and the corpse in that grave did not have a head.”

The police brought the head to Bush because it had fillings in some teeth. “But when we analyzed the fillings, they contained metals that were made in the 1980s, and the open grave was from the 1950s. So what we did was essentially complicate the whole situation, because they didn’t match.”

And the case has still not been solved.

“We really messed things up for the poor police,” said Bush, an expert on forensic dentistry who helped identify victims of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in 2009, and whose work has been featured in several prominent trials involving bite mark analysis.

Academic work trumps all

But before commercial or civic projects walk in the door, the lab focuses on academic needs.

The South Campus Instrument Center that Bush directs is used by graduate students and researchers across the university. “Our primary reason for existence is in support research at UB. Chemistry, physics, biology, the medical school, dental school, engineering, anybody who is doing research can use our facilities,” he said. “Typically it’s graduate students.”

“There are two takeaways for them: the experience of using the equipment, which is good for their careers, and they take away high-quality data,” he said.

Bush said a professor from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology came to his lab recently and proposed a new method for examining trypanosomes, the single-cell parasites related to malaria that cause sleeping sickness.

“One of my first jobs was in the laboratory at Imperial College London working with parasites,” Bush said. “Here is it 30 years later, and I’m working on the same things.”

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