Quality Innovations: Mainstream Microscopy
November 21, 2007
FEI (Hillsboro, OR), a company that built its name on high-end electron microscopes, has expanded its product lineup in a big way.
A few years ago, a team of people at multiple sites within the company began to discuss the advantages of miniaturizing the equipment, visualizing a microscope that would be to previous microscopes what the personal computer was to the mainframe, according to Joe Fillion, Phenom product marketing manager. While the mainframe is a centralized product that requires a special room, the PC is decentralized and anyone can use it. Likewise, FEI’s goal was a microscope with the power of an electron microscope, but much easier to use.
Unlike FEI’s specialized electron microscopes, used by a handful of engineers for research and requiring special operators and rooms, “this is a product that many can use,” Fillion says. It would work for someone who has a regular microscope, but needs more magnification power.
The Phenom, as the new microscope is called, applies to a broad range of applications. “That’s the blessing and the curse of it,” Fillion says. “Having a wide number of markets is the great part, but now we have to satisfy them all.”
Phenom is a high-resolution desktop imaging tool with an optical camera for navigation and an electron microscope for detailed imaging. It can handle a range of samples with minimal preparation and samples are loaded instantly with its patented vacuum technology. Images are then saved on a USB memory stick for off-line analysis, measurements and distribution.
Industrial applications are one noteworthy area for the Phenom, says Fillion. For medical device or polymer-type manufacturers, good imaging is essential. Thus, these companies would send their samples out to take electron microscope pictures, but with the time and scheduling involved, it was a fairly costly and inefficient process. With the Phenom, they could have results in minutes and streamline the development process, says Fillion. Instead of sending samples to another building, the Phenom can be placed in any location.
“Instead of stopping the production line, they will have the machine right there, near the equipment,” Fillion says. “Within 30 seconds they’ll have their answer.”
Failure analysis and quality inspection is another area where the Phenom can be used. The microscope allows operators to look at a failure and see things such as micro-cracks. It can answer questions such as “How did this fail?”
“A light microscope only goes to about 1,000 times magnification,” Fillion says. “We can go to 20,000 times. It can really give you an idea of what it really looks like, in a real-time environment for any kind of material or metal failure.”
As with any new product release, the team carefully considered the size, durability and reliability, along with its appearance and ease of use. FEI partnered with a few different companies and spent a lot of time focused on the design, look and feel of the product itself. While FEI’s strength is its engineers, they wanted a design group to aid in the feel and design. They considered the name, color scheme, interface and strove for a well-received product.
The product’s good looks have not gone unnoticed. It received the Red Dot Design award in Germany, a 2006 Mechatronica Design Award in the Netherlands, and a Recognition of Excellence in Innovation from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Despite the accolades, the product does have some disadvantages.
Unlike booths at trade shows such as Quality Expo where companies could scan an entire car door, this is not possible with the Phenom, Fillion points out.
“It’s a microscope and you’re looking at small things,” Fillion says. “You are limited by what size sample you can put in.”
Also, operators cannot look at completely wet samples because of the unit’s vacuum system.
“You couldn’t put mayonnaise in there because you probably wouldn’t see too much,” he says.
These issues have not hindered the product’s launch. The Phenom sells for $72,000 and was formally released in the United States at the end of June; they pre-launched the product in Europe last November. The beta phase of testing lasted about six to nine months, and was done with universities in the United States and industrial applications in Europe.
“We’re extremely excited about it,” Fillion says. “We’re really at the early stages, and not able to fathom what applications we will do with this product in the future.” He anticipates that the Phenom will be a disruptive technology, but in a positive way, in the same way that the PC was disruptive to the mainframe.
Since its release, FEI has discovered more possibilities for use of the Phenom. Every few weeks someone comes in with another idea, Fillion says. “With this product, we’re finding new stuff every month, every week.”
Technology ContactFor more information on the Phenom, contact:
- FEI Co.
29 Water Street, Suite 216
Newburyport, MA 01950