Scaling Microscopy Processes for a Production Environment

3 ways to improve microscope usage in a production environment through automation.

Automating a Very Manual Process

Microscopy is often the ideal measurement method during the research and development phase of a new product or process. This is due to the high resolution, quality, and accuracy of the data that comes with a microscope.  Microscopy equipment provides the data required to make good decisions but does not scale well to the production floor.  Often, microscope users manually place samples and parts haphazardly under the manually-focused objectives for inspection. This is no problem for single quick inspections but introduces unwanted measurement variants on the production floor. 

Typically scaling up a measurement process on the production floor means sacrificing measurement quality by using a different set of sensors that are lower resolution and quality, but are purpose-built for production processes.  However, by implementing the right tools around your microscopy process you are able to apply the same measurement results into your production environment.

#1 – Use Recipes

book, cook, eat

In the kitchen, if we want to reproduce a great-tasting meal we follow a recipe. For an automated process, the recipe does the same thing. It dictates how, where, and when measurements are to take place. The less user interaction with the recipe, the more automated the process. Furthermore, using measurement recipes is one of the easiest ways to increase the robustness of your measurement process which allows you to achieve more reproducible results.   

Recipe creation should be a user friendly affair.  Creating a recipe should be as easy as jogging from point to point and saying “measure here.”  Recipe generation can cost a lot of setup time since each part and process step we want to automate requires its own recipe. Peak Metrology has developed a user-friendly way to generate and customize recipes which allows a user to drive towards reproducible results with minimal effort.

#2 – Enable Part Placement & Alignment

Sometimes what seems like the most trivial problem, can cause the biggest headache.  Placing the part under the microscope to be measured is one of these issues. The first step in automating a process is to ensure everything is EXACTLY where we expect it to be.  If it is not, the process will not be able to locate the right features on the part that need measured. And since microscopes are inherently limited by small fields of view this initial part alignment is critical to automating a measurement process.

target, bullseye, aim

Using the high resolution of the microscope for fiducial registration solves this problem.  A microscope typically has a live image mode, so it makes sense to use this to locate your part using this mode. Furthermore, we can use this resolution to select fiducial points to calculate and compensate for how rotated your parts are underneath the microscope.  This ensures that all of the measurements will be taken with respect to physical points of interest, and again increased measurement reproducibility.

#3 – Take Advantage of Autofocus Techniques

Now that we have automated part placement and alignment in XY space, it is time to automate Z space.  If the part is not in focus, the data collected by the microscope is worthless.  Locating the area of interest’s focal plane automatically is the trick.  This can be done by combining a simple height sensor near the microscopes lens. 

This height sensor can be used to adjust the plane of the microscope and all subsequent measurements, thus optimizing the scanning time for each product.  The height sensor will offset the Z height so that the microscope scanning range is the same for all measurements. This has the additional advantage of allowing the user to optimize the scan depth of the microscope based on the physical surface at every location which will reduce the overall measurement time. 

Tying It All Together 

Automation is all about removing operator steps that consume time and resources. The traditionally manual microscopy process can be automated easily to increase process reproducibility and measurement throughput. This allows for microscopy techniques to be applied inside of production environments which leads to increased measurement resolution and accuracy. Creating measurement recipes, fiducial alignment steps, and using autofocus methods all push microscopy process towards industrial automation. 

Reach out to us if you are interested in the features and equipment that we have developed to meet the needs of automated microscopy in a production environment.