SEM automation – the future of scanning electron microscopy

By Rose Helweg - February 14, 2019

Kai van Beek, Director of Market Development at Thermo Fisher Scientific™, analyzes the market and how the company's products fit customers' current and future needs. Together with his team, he defines the roadmap for product development. For almost 20 years, he has been working with automated scanning electron microscopy (SEM) solutions. In this interview, Kai looks back over many years of SEM experience and talks about current and future automated SEM products, the demands of the market and his personal vision regarding the automation of SEM.

Thermo Scientific™ Phenom Desktop Electron Microscopy Solutions offer innovative SEM products such as automated solutions. For whom do you develop such products?

There are lots of people, who—during their daily work life—need to do measurements with SEM systems. Often these people have to look at hundreds of images or repeat the same measurement again and again. We want to make these people more productive.

And who are these people?

Very different types: from a scientist to an industrial researcher to a production line worker. In many cases, they have to examine lots of data extracted from the SEM images.

Any examples?

Gunshot residue analysis is a good example. When a firearm is discharged, a plume of distinct particles is emitted and these particles can settle on hands and clothing. Once a sample is extracted from the hands or clothing, a forensic scientist needs to analyze thousands of particles on the sample, looking for those few particles that are distinctly from the discharge of a firearm.

Another good example is the cleanliness of production processes. During the manufacturing of an assembly, dirt and dust is introduced from the production hall and the manufacturing steps, for example, the drilling of a hole. A production engineer will collect samples and analyze thousands of particles to determine if the production process is still clean enough to produce good products. I want people to be able to answer such questions in a fast and easy manner.



Figure 1: Gunshot residue analysis with a SEM

That means in the field of material analysis, automated SEM solutions can make the work much faster?

Yes, of course – and moreover an automated analysis avoids human bias. When you sit in front of a system and you look at a SEM image, your eye always gravitates to those characteristics that stand out. But there might be 50 other features, which you ignore, although they could tell you something, too. And moreover, especially in industry, you have multiple users – so, it is difficult to obtain comparable results without automation.

Just to be clear: this means time-saving and elimination of human bias are the main advantages of automated SEM systems compared to non-automated ones?

Well, there are basically three main reasons why automation of SEM is important. Eliminating human bias is one. Another one is statistical characterization. Only automated systems are able to image a huge number of different particles or spots within a reasonable time. And the third reason is the “needle in a haystack” problem: I want to find a specific feature within a large number of other features. And the two last reasons I just mentioned, save lots of time.

Regarding commercial products, it seems that automated solutions and applications for scanning electron microscopes are a rather new phenomenon. Is that true?

Not necessarily. I would say it is actually quite old – it probably goes back to the 1970s. As soon as people had a SEM, they realized that automation would make things easier. A simple example: if you do not want to make only one image of your sample but 100. Obviously, one wants to automate that process.

So could we say that researchers, in particular, have been automating their imaging and analysis ever since they started working with SEM? 

Yes, but also those working in fields outside of research sought to automate their SEM. For example the gunshot residue (GSR) analysis, which is a SEM application that was automated very early. The operator had to look at the sample and search for the gunshot residue particles in order to determine if a firearm has been used in a crime. And that is the so-called “needle in the haystack” problem. One goes crazy trying to find these particles.

But isn't it true that automated SEM systems are considered a new trend?

I agree. These older automated SEMs required well-trained operators to run the system. What has changed is that there are systems like the Phenom desktop SEM, which are very easy to operate, including automating the Phenom desktop SEM.

So, that means that modern SEM systems are smaller, faster and easier to operate compared to older models right?

…and, therefore, the system is cheaper to operate. And also analyzing and storing a big amount of data is much easier today. Together, all these things have made the technique, and especially automated solutions, more accessible.

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What was really necessary to develop automated SEM solution for a broader audience?

In particular, the stability of the system. Obviously, in automated SEMs the operator leaves the system working alone. In order to obtain good images and to be able to trust the results, several parameters such as ‘focus’ or ‘contrast’ must remain stable for different images. Also, nowadays the preparation of the sample can be done very routinely. Longer life of the electron source is also important. Conventional sources used to burn out after 100 hours. If your system runs many hours per day, then you have to replace the filament every week. Our SEMs, for example, use a long-life electron source that can run continuously for long periods of time.

You mentioned "stability of the system". What technical requirements does this condition place on the system?

Basically, the detector and the electron source have to work in a very stable and reliable fashion. For example, earlier EDX detectors, which give us chemical information about the sample, were unstable. That has changed. Besides that, the system now is much more compact. It is possible to put it almost anywhere and immediately start collecting data.

When you leave the system unattended, how can you be sure that the data is reliable?

This is a very critical issue. Operators must be sure that they can trust their results – for instance when you release a product to the market or investigate a customer sample. For that reason, we have so-called reference samples that provide a fingerprint of how the system behaves during automation.

How can I imagine that? Does the Thermo Scientific™ Phenom product range use different reference samples for testing the instrument?

Yes, depending on the purpose of the SEM there are different reference samples – like for the automotive industry or for gunshot residue. The reference samples are representative of the samples the customers will use. And before the system leaves the factory, we test it with the particular reference sample in the way the customer will use it.

At present, what are the most used applications for automated SEM systems?

I would say gunshot residue since it is one of the oldest applications. In the automotive industry, it is technically challenging to apply automated SEM. However, the automotive industry already uses our products to monitor the assembly process of certain parts, and also to microscopically inspect the final product. Another application is for imaging microscopic fibers – there are many different types of fibers and they hold many things together. Finally, analysis of minerals is another very important field.


Figure 2: An example of automatic detection of fibers with SEM

When it comes to the Phenom product range, what kind of automated SEM products in particular are you offering?

Our products should enable our customers to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer. For dedicated markets, we have specific solutions such as the Thermo Scientific™ Phenom AsbestoMetric Software, which enables operators to detect asbestos fibers automatically. These fibers are hazardous, and the software allows for a quick risk assessment. And as already mentioned, for forensic purposes we offer a gunshot residue desktop SEM, the Thermo Scientific™ Phenom Perception GSR Desktop SEM. Moreover, we have dedicated solutions for additive manufacturing and the automotive industry. 

And for scientists in the lab?

For example, there are automated scripts for imaging and data analysis and moreover, we allow our customers to make their own scripts for automating their workflow. The users of our systems are very creative. They have their own good ideas and they do not want to wait for us to implement them. And we encourage them to start realizing their ideas.

Are automated SEM systems still more suitable and important for big companies with large production lines, rather than for small companies or research labs?

It does not depend on the size of the company or the lab. It really depends on the question you want to answer. Among our customers, there are big as well as small companies – both asking for automated solutions. However, that was different in the past when systems were much larger and more difficult to operate. At that time, only large companies were able to afford such systems, including the trained experts to operate them.

Soon there will be an ISO standard in place specifying, among others, the qualification of the SEM for quantitative measurements. Will this standard drive automation?

In my opinion, these standards normalize the best practices. Say we introduce a new product for automation. A couple of early adopters, who see the value, will buy it. But not everybody is like this; some people and companies prefer to wait a little bit. For these people, the ISO standards are helpful since they describe the best practices. Besides, the ISO standards help everyone by having a common language. Especially in industry, you always have this sort of communication between a supplier and a customer. Let’s say the automotive industry buys steel from a steel plant and now the quality of the steel can be tested according to a standard. That means the ISO standard makes it simpler to meet the expectations of both partners. And probably that will drive the development of automated SEM systems.

Are there any new automated SEM applications on the horizon?

The big one that we are seeing is nanoparticles. Plastic nanoparticles, for instance, are showing up everywhere. Our customers want to start monitoring this. Where are these nanoparticles, what are they made of and where do they come from? The interest can, for example, be driven by health or environmental concerns. Another field – which evolves because data storing is so cheap and easy – is large area mapping.

For what reason?

It can be to test the uniformity of material, which is becoming more and more important. And the SEM data can then be combined with information from other sources. Let’s assume I take a picture with my cell phone of a part that has failed. Afterwards, I make SEM images to get microscopic information and in addition, I generate some chemical information, and so on. There are a whole bunch of different data sources. I literally build up a “picture” about this part containing all the information I have collected. Eventually, I might be able to understand, why it has failed. This kind of correlated data will be more and more important in the future.

Are there any new markets with potential demand for innovative SEM solutions?

Electric vehicles is one market we can think of. This development will change the requirements for the car industry. Electric vehicles come with a whole bunch of electronic parts and devices. All these electronics and the batteries themselves must be controlled and microscopically imaged.

What is your vision regarding automation in SEM?

From a personal point of view, the value of an automated SEM is really to show small features and the value of the chemistry is to differentiate between features.

I think the next level of automation is the analysis of the interface of materials or multiple layers of materials. This is only happening in academia, and not in an automated manner. Take steel, for example: you could analyze the interface between the steel and the inclusion. Or think of airborne particles. They can be made of plastic, and this plastic can have a coating. If you swallow such a particle, it makes a big difference if it is coated with a certain chemical or not.

Last but not least, a very personal question. What motivates you during work?

What personally drives me is to make products that people can really use. It gives me great pleasure to see people work productively when using our tools. I want them to obtain the best possible results at that time.They should gain insights by using our products, which they previously did not get. And if they are happy, I am happy.

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About the author

Rose Helweg is the digital marketing specialist for the Thermo Scientific Phenom Desktop SEM product range at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Rose is driven to unveil the hidden beauty of the nanoworld and by the performance and versatility of the Phenom Desktop SEM. She is dedicated to developing new relevant stories about high-tech innovation and the interesting world of electron microscopy. And to help potential customers see the possibilities desktop SEM has to offer.

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