Buying a scanning electron microscope: how to select the right SEM

By Karl Kersten - August 2, 2018

You want to buy a new scanning electron microscope (SEM) because you know you need more SEM capability. Maybe you have a traditional floor model SEM, but it is slow and complicated to operate. Maybe you are using an outside service and the turn-around time is unacceptably long.

You’ve made your case that your company could significantly improve their business performance and you could do your job better if SEM imaging and analysis were easier, faster and more accessible. Can a desktop SEM do what you need? This article provides the answers and helps you to select the right SEM.

Floor model SEM vs. Desktop SEM

The choice between a desktop SEM and a larger, floor model system  is almost always primarily an economic one: desktops are much less expensive. But there are other factors that also argue in favor of a desktop solution, even when cost is not the primary consideration.

Already know that you require a desktop SEM? 

Then download this guide to select the right microscope for your processes and application


Scanning electron microscopes: pricing & affordability

Let’s deal first with SEM pricing. Desktop SEMs are typically priced at a fraction of their floor model relatives. And there are certainly situations in which the additional cost of the larger systems are justifiable, for example, when the resolution requirements are beyond those achievable in a desktop SEM system.

However, today’s desktop SEM’s can deliver resolutions smaller than 10 nm, enough for 80%-90% of all SEM applications. So your first question has to be, is it enough for yours?

Beyond the initial acquisition, there are significant additional costs for a floor model scanning electron microscope system:

  • facilities – typically at least a dedicated room (perhaps including specialized foundations and environmental isolation)
  • additional space and equipment for sample preparation; personnel – a dedicated operator, trained in instrument operation and sample preparation.

It is worth noting that while the cost of the equipment and facility are primarily fixed costs of acquisition, the operator is an ongoing expense that will persist for the lifetime of the instrument.

Clearly, a desktop SEM solution — less costly to acquire and with no requirement for a dedicated facility or operator — is the less expensive choice, as long as its capabilities satisfy the requirements of the application.

Other decision factors when selecting and buying a scanning electron microscope

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(1) Microscope speed

Desktop SEM systems require minimal sample preparation and their relaxed vacuum requirements and small evacuated volume allow the system to present an image much more quickly than a typical floor model system.

Moreover, desktop SEMs are usually operated by the consumer of the information, eliminating the time required a dedicated operator to perform the analysis, prepare a report and communicate the result.

In addition to faster answers, there is considerable intangible value in the immediacy of the analysis and the user’s ability to direct the investigation in real-time response to observations.

Finally, in some applications, such as inspection, longer delays carry a tangible cost by putting more work-in-progress at risk.

(2) Microscope applications

Is the application routine well defined? If it is, and a desktop SEM can provide the required information, why spend more? Concerns about future requirements exceeding the desktop capability should be evaluated in terms of the certainty and timing of the potential requirements and the availability of outside resources for more demanding applications.

Even in cases where future requirements will exceed desktop capability, the initial investment in a desktop SEM can continue to deliver a return as that system is used to supplement a future floor model system.

Perhaps in a screening capacity or to continue to perform routine analyses while the floor model system is applied to more demanding applications.

A desktop system may also serve as a step-wise approach to the justification of a larger system, establishing the value of SEM while allowing an experience-based evaluation of the need and cost of more advanced capability from an outside provider.

(3) Microscope users

How many individuals will be using the system? Are the users trained? If not, how much time are they willing to invest in training? Desktop SEMs are simple to operate and require little or no sample preparation. Obtaining an image can be as easy as pushing a couple of buttons.

More advanced procedures can be accessed by users with specific needs who are willing to invest a little time in training. In general, the requirements for operator training are much lower with a desktop system and the system itself is much more robust. It is harder to break, and the potential repair cost is much lower.


Buying a scanning electron microscope: take-aways

Now a short recap. The primary decision factors when selecting a SEM are:

  • Pricing
  • Speed
  • Applications
  • Users

The question to ask yourself while going over these factors is: does a desktop SEM meet my application requirements?

From experience we can say that it will, in most scenarios. If a desktop SEM is indeed suitable for your application, you’re looking at an investment that’s significantly lower compared to a floor model SEM.

Remember, desktop systems are typically priced at a fraction of their floor model relatives.

As I stated earlier there are situations in which the additional cost of larger systems is justifiable. This is the case when the resolution requirements are beyond those achievable in a desktop system.

However, today’s desktop SEMs can deliver resolutions less than 10 nm — enough for 80%-90% of all SEM applications. So the question will often be: is it enough for yours?

If that’s a difficult question to answer — or if you’re still just in doubt which SEM to choose — we have an e-guide available that should be of help: how to choose a SEM.

This guide takes an even deeper dive into the selection process of a SEM, and will help you select the right model for your process and applications.

The free guide is available for download here:

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About the author

Karl Kersten is head of the Thermo Scientific Phenom Desktop SEM Application Team at Thermo Fisher Scientific. He is passionate about the Phenom Desktop SEM product and likes converting customer requirements into product or feature specifications so customers can achieve their goals.

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