Quality Control to the Power of X: The New Era of Scanning Electron Microscopes

The first Industrial Revolution ended more than a century ago. However, there’s been another revolution of sorts in the last five years, specifically in industrial manufacturing and in the area of quality control, in particular. Quality assurance departments in industrial manufacturing usually assemble a range of different types of equipment to explore morphology and composition of material, from optical microscopes to high-end scanning electron microscopes (SEMs), to control the purity of their processes. Because of the high-speed nature of their processes, the sooner they can identify a problem—especially before it becomes one—the greater their profitability, due to increased quality, lack of down time, or all of the above.

Optical microscopes are cost-effective, but their limited magnification and resolution capabilities leave a lot to be desired when compared to high-end SEMs. SEMs offer great imaging and allow excellent identification and visualization of materials using energy-dispersive X-ray (EDX) spectroscopy, but as bells and whistles are added the price can become prohibitive.

To offer the best of both worlds, manufacturers have begun to consider ways of combining the high-end features of an SEM with the affordability of an optical microscope, an approach that led to the development of new, integrated SEM system designs. Today’s systems have gone further; integrating the X-ray detector into the structure of the instrument allows closer placement of the sensor to the specimen and improves detection efficiency. It also allows better thermal management, and vacuum and electrical-connection efficiencies.

But what if you don’t have staff skilled enough to operate the machine, let alone make sense out of all the reams of data it could produce? To combat this, many of today’s integrated microscopy systems are automated instruments with push-button technology, allowing them to operate with minimal oversight. These machines, however, can easily produce huge data dumps that some poor lab assistant must analyze to extract the right data. Optimal integrated systems include software that allows applications to be customized so each report gives the right data for the industry or application, and also make it portable to share in presentations and reports. Integrated microscopy has provided quality assurance managers and tribologists alike fast, easy-to-read results, and in the process has given them increased quality control and improved profitability. These innovations have ushered in a whole new era of SEMs that will continue to push the limits of applications in industry.

What applications do you need to run today to make your quality control process the best it can be? I’d like to hear from you.

Tim Drake, Ph.D., is Director of Sales and Business Development, ASPEX (Delmont, PA); timothy.drake@fei.com; www.aspexcorp.com