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Education: Technology Made Easy

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Caren B. Les, caren.les@laurin.com

Within the photonics industry, designers are working to simplify instruments for greater ease of operation – to save on labor costs and to accommodate a variety of other marketplace needs. Users no longer see it as their responsibility to test and calibrate systems, or to labor over data analysis. The manufacturer should do that for them. Users simply want to employ the instrument for productive and reliable analyses, according to Ian Jardine, vice president of global research and development for Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. of Waltham, Mass.

Jardine noted that the number of instrument systems used in laboratories to solve problems in a routine fashion has grown significantly and that it would not be economical to have them all run by highly qualified and expensive researchers. So, the “research technical skill level” requirements tend to be lower overall.

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This Fourier transform spectrometer is designed for use in analytical and investigative chemistry laboratories. The instrument represents a trend toward easier-to-operate equipment in the photonics industry. Photo courtesy of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.

Jardine said that designers are simplifying instruments used in molecular spectroscopy, including Fourier transform infrared and Raman spectroscopy and microscopy, for routine materials characterization. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, these devices are used to create new formulations, and in the chemical industry, typically, polymers are under analysis. He said that there is a growing demand for simple handheld devices for performing elemental spectroscopy, including atomic absorption and x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, in environmental and industrial applications. Easy-to-operate mass spectrometry instruments for pharmaceutical drug quantitation and metabolite structural analysis are also being developed.

Simplifying the laser

The success of many new laser processes and sources depends on the low complexity of the laser, according to Andreas Ostendorf, past chairman of the Conference on Photonic Applications, Systems and Technologies’ (PhAST) Lasers in Manufacturing Committee and currently chairman of the laser applications technology department at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany. He gave as an example the femtosecond laser systems that are used for performing routine surgeries. Operated by doctors and nurses, the instruments have been designed with a minimal number of adjustable parameters at the end-user terminal.

The simplification trend, which originated in medical and biomedical applications for surgery, diagnostics and imaging, now drives industrial applications, Ostendorf said. Easy-to-operate lasers are increasingly being used in industrial environments such as in the production of medical implants and microelectronics, where there are few PhD-level operators available, he added.

The integration of components in these systems has been improved so that little or no adjustment is required, Ostendorf said. These instruments are sealed and temperature-controlled, reducing drift and other defects that would require servicing by highly skilled people. Manufacturers have designed gas lasers in such a way that there is only one on/off button and one power-adjustment switch. The resonator gas is sealed in a cartridgelike reservoir that can easily be removed after a certain level of degradation occurs.

Increasingly, lasers are being used in mass production, such as in the display or photovoltaics industry, because they are now as easy to use as mechanical turning machines, Ostendorf said. Finally, the numerous job shops in the sheet metal industry that work around the clock rely on easy-to-use laser systems.

In the end, it is all about money, Ostendorf said. Low-skilled operators are always cheaper than specialized engineers. The globalization of production also supports the trend toward easy-to-use lasers because they can be installed in almost any country, he added.


GLOSSARY
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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