Friday, October 20, 2023

Driving custom microscopy into the future

Interview in 'Microscopy and Analysis' with Christoph Sichting about point electronic, innovating and how to develop solutions for customers.

This is an extract from the article in the "Microscopy and Analysis" issue Sept/Oct 2023. You can read the whole interview: here

Since 1992, point electronic of Germany has installed more than 3000 standard and bespoke parts on electron microscopes – Managing Director, Christoph Sichting, charts company developments over the decades and reveals future plans. [...]

What was your initial product range, and how has this changed over the years?

In the early years, the company was focused on service for SEM, microprobes and EDS systems, which then naturally evolved to include small instrument development projects. A first major development, and rather successful product, took place during the transition from analog to digital imaging in electron microscopy, which accompanied the emergence of PCs and printers. The digital imaging scanning system that came out of that period is now in generation six, very much commercially successful and continuing to lead in a number of technical areas.

That first successful development then enabled more products on amplifiers, controllers, detectors – essentially all the parts needed to run an electron column. This full range of parts now gives us the rather unique ability to supply full electronics and software systems for OEMs and start-ups. This remains a very active, and usually confidential, area of our business. It is also a key source of new technology that enables us to stay ahead of mainstream electronics for microscopy.

At the same time, the company has grown its focus on science, developing full solutions in particular fields, such as electrical analysis for the semiconductor industry and research labs, or topographic analysis for fractography. This now continues with the development of high temperature detectors for in situ microscopy. Delivery of these complete solutions also builds up on our strong service roots, to which we remain very close.

M2C calibration joined you in 2017 – how did this steer business?

We were in contact with M2C for some years before the acquisition, so we already had a very good collaboration and a few common customers. We had developed an interest to grow in particular science fields, and M2C had unrivaled expertise in 3D calibration and BSE topography. We were already known for our high-quality electronics and software, also needed for calibration and 3D work, so we both realized we had complementary portfolios.

With the acquisition, point electronic became one of the leading companies for calibration standards for microscopy, which opened a range of commercial avenues that were not accessible before. We have also invested more into integrating 3D technology into our products, and now we have a strong and unique position for topographic solutions for SEM and FIB/SEM tools. [...]

Tell us about the software that you are developing.

Software is of course a window into our products, and an important layer between our electronics and users. But at the lowest software level, we develop a base of device drivers for that communicate to our electronics, which tends to be highly hardware specific, very technical, and confidential. Above this, we develop a more open layer of libraries, complete with documentation on APIs and sample code in several languages, which enables OEMs, startups and independent developers to build their own applications.

On top of these APIs we develop our own independent control apps for each device, as well as integrated control and acquisition software that integrates specific combinations of devices. We tend to develop scientific algorithms for data processing and analysis into plugins, to keep a good interface between engineers and scientists.

We adhere to a few key principles that we have found very successful over the years, to keep the user in focus, to give freedom to operate, to use standard file formats and interfaces. It has allowed us to build up unique competence in advanced software topics, such as calibration, quantitative techniques, correlative microscopy, multi-color visualization. [...]

What do you see as being key growth areas for your business right now?

First, we have long term growth in all product areas as we continue to improve our presence and distribution outside Germany. Adding to this, we have an increased presence in the TEM area, where our TEM scan controller is finding a lot of value in advanced scan patterns for high speed, as well as hardware synchronization with fast cameras. Our open software approach, to enable independent researchers to develop their own techniques, is finding a lot of resonance in high-end TEM.

Another area of growth is OEM/ ODM electronics for EM manufactures and column makers. Some of this is the more traditional electronics for electromagnetic lenses, but our full electronics for high-speed electrostatic deflection columns, with quadrupoles and octupoles, is finding more and more customers for test stands, or full production microscopes.

We are also growing more into in situ microscopy. This year we are promoting our new BSE detector for in situ high temperature testing, and multi-channel color-coded EFA for in situ electrical testing. More products are in development for in situ mechanical testing, as we seek to establish our presence in this area.

You have very recently won the Hugo Junkers Prize Saxony-Anhalt and the IQ Innovation Award – why?

We won with our new in situ Electrical Analysis solution for TEM that enables researchers, manufacturers, and failure analysis to perform high end electrical analysis on semiconductor devices of the latest generations. I believe we won because it is an example of how an SME can contribute to some of the most technical challenges of our times – next generation CMOS technology, whilst at the same time establish a commercial product to drive local development.

On one side, we keep a customer focus, which does regularly come up with difficult requests that pushes us toward innovation – the electrical analysis solution for TEM is an example of this. On another side, it is a testament to the quality of our product managers and engineers, that they have the ability to keep an open mind, to hear when a need is not met, to imagine new solutions, and then to translate that into new designs, be it circuit design or source code. [...]


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