Clear vision

Posted on 10 Jul 2009 by The Manufacturer

This year Oxford Instruments celebrates 50 years of scientific innovation and excellence. Ruari McCallion talked to Nigel Salter about the latest developments.

In 1959, Oxford Instruments became the first commercial spin-out company from Oxford University and set a trend that everyone else has followed since. Since then, it has grown to into a worldwide business supplying high technology tools and systems for industrial analysis, research, education, space, and energy. Its USP, to use an advertising term, is the resources, expertise and capability to design and produce equipment able to identify and manipulate matter at the smallest scale. Dr Nigel Salter is operations director of Oxford Instruments NanoAnalysis, the global market leader in the supply of microanalysis systems. It produces around 1000 systems a year and turns over about £35m annually; its target is to reach £50m by 2011.

“We make X-ray microanalysis equipment for use on electron microscopes,” he says. “Our customers are the microscope manufacturers like Zeiss, Jeol, FEI and Hitachi – as well as universities, research laboratories and other commercial organisations.” Nanoanalysis is about looking at what makes up materials and objects; Oxford Instruments’ systems tell the user about the chemistry and structure of materials on the micro- or even nano-scale.

“Oxford Instruments technology is concentrated on two types of analysis: EDS (electron dispersive spectroscopy) which tells you about the elements in the material; and EBSD (electron backscatter diffraction) for probing a materials structure,” says Salter. EDS tells you what type of currants there are in your bun; EBSD tells you how they are distributed. The equipment is used for materials analysis, in the silicon wafer industry, for example. “Full systems consist of a detector, which measures and captures X-rays; pulse processing electronics for signal processing; and software for analysis. We manufacture the detectors but there’s a lot of clever stuff in the software, too, which we develop ourselves here in the UK and that is the expensive bit.”

Oxford Instruments commits around ten per cent of revenues to R&D annually, necessary to maintain its position as a producer of leading edge tools and systems. There are no markets for 20-year old technology; even 10- year old technology tends to be past its sell-by date. The last five years have seen a major new development that has pushed older technology into the shadows.

“EDS uses two different sensor technologies. Traditionally sensors use silicon-lithium crystals. They operate at very low temperatures and are cooled with liquid nitrogen. Recent years have seen the emergence of silicon drift detectors (SDD),” he explains. “They are more advanced and they don’t have to be so cold so there is no need for liquid nitrogen. That means a saving in energy for a start and it also means the equipment is smaller, safer and easier to operate, as well as being more productive for the user. Oxford Instruments has developed the concept and technology to make it even more powerful.”

“Our new X-Max Large Area Analytical EDS SDD sensors provide a larger-area detector than anyone else has, which means the user can get more X-rays onto a sample, and that means faster results,” he says. “The analogy is with camera optics: the bigger the lens, the more light comes in. Our SDD has a detector area up to 80 sq mm; before the X-Max, the typical detector size was just 10 sq mm.” There are other products on the market that advertise larger detectors than 10 sq mm however. “That’s true but they do it by putting several smaller sensors together and that inevitably creates design compromises. Ours is a single sensor, which makes for more efficient detection of X-rays.” The X-Max was launched in October 2008, started shipping in January and has exceeded our expectations!”

“We passed our planned production volumes in March this year. The market can’t get them fast enough!” says Salter. “People with older-style detectors are upgrading to X-Max; there is a big upgrade market for us.” Its markets are global, with an equal split between Europe, the Far East and the US. Products are manufactured in the UK but it has strong representation in all its markets, with offices in Japan, China, USA, and in Europe. Another X-Max product will be launching soon.

“In July, we will be introducing a version of X-Max for transmission electron microscopes, which is a different market again,” he says. “Scanning electron microscopes look at the surface of materials; transmission electron microscopes use even higher magnification and can approach the atomic scale. It will be used in semiconductor plants, and advanced materials research and in nanotech applications like thin film coatings, including polymer coatings and photovoltaic (PV) cells. There’s a lot of research going on at the fundamental level to get Solar pv more effective and less expensive. That research uses our equipment.”

Another division of Oxford Instruments is Plasma Technology, which makes plasma coating machines. “They build up materials one atomic layer at a time;they do the fabrication, we do the analysis. They and their customers use our equipment.”

Although Oxford Instruments products are very high specification and use the latest technology, they are still able to source some components from lower-cost areas, like Malaysia. Its facility at High Wycombe near Oxford undertakes design and development, final assembly, configuration and testing.

“It is similar to the OEM model,” says Salter. “The total part count may be 150 or so but they arrive as nine or 10 subassemblies. The PCBs come in completely populated to our design, for example.” Business improvement programmes have their role in Oxford Instruments’ development; its key measures are customer service and lead times. Even with its ultra-high tolerances, it manages 97 per cent in full within a week; 85 per cent on the actual day. It builds to forecast but uses a sophisticated sales and operations planning process to control it.

“We have to strike the balance between lead time, inventory control, on-time delivery and the pressures of build to order,” says Salter. “Our core competencies are design, software and assembly, configuration and testing – but our real strength is in product design.” Its continued leadership in its markets is testament to that.