Inside ZEISS House in Cambourne: How Carl Zeiss microscopes are used for ice cream, cataract surgery and jets
From cataract surgery procedures to the size of the bubbles in Magnum ice cream, ZEISS technology is embedded in daily life in a myriad of ways.
And as anyone who has used the company’s camera lenses, binoculars or scopes will know, the brand is synonymous with quality and precision.
That is achieved, of course, with great attention to detail in the manufacturing line.
At the recently opened Cambourne site, the team is responsible for making ZEISS’ scanning electron microscopes.
These have applications across academia and industry, from nanotechnology and life sciences to analysing metals for mining purposes and quality assurance.
Chip manufacturers such as Intel use ZEISS microscopes to examine their products and conduct failure analysis. Researchers in the United States are trying to create the first map of the fruit fly brain using the technology. And even air forces have cause to use ZEISS’ machines.
“Every time a military jet lands, they examine a small portion of the engine oil and if they find particulates over a critical size, they know that engine is at high risk of failing,” explained applications engineer Ken Png. “They know from the composition which part of the engine it comes from.”
Food technology is another major application. Unilever, the food giant, uses electron microscopy to explore how well mayonnaise squirts out of bottles.
Ice cream manufacture benefits from electron microscopy too.
“Magnum ice cream tastes luxurious and smooth thanks to science,” said Ken. “The main property is the size of the bubbles. If they are too big, it is foamy. If they are too small, it tastes like ice.”
Ken shows customers visiting ZEISS House the capabilities of the company’s microscopes – such as the entry-level EVO family or higher-end SIGMA series.
Next door is Rumana Khan, applications engineer in the raw materials lab.
“Here we focus on geosciences and metals in their primary form,” she said. “The focus is on our software in conjunction with our instruments and how to best quantify the mineralogy and chemistry. We are involved in every step of the chain, from academia and universities, who focus on how are these formed and where the most enriched parts are, to the mining and mineral processing side, to optimise the recovery of these metals.”
ZEISS is also heavily involved in providing technology for microsurgery, such as for cataract removal or neurosurgery. And it provides devices, such as ophthalmic microscopes, for hospitals and high street optometrists.
Daniel Martin, ZEISS’ national adoption officer, said: “We have been constantly improving. We have a machine that automatically tracks landmarks and will customise a scan to your eye. If we scan you now and again in two years, it will fix on exactly the same position. So if we’re looking at vessel changes, or other pathological changes, we can look at exactly the same area.”
All of ZEISS’ scanning electron microscopes are built to order and, remarkably, are typically shipped to customers within eight to 10 weeks, depending on the model required.
This timeline has halved.
“It’s really quick if you consider that behind that there is a supply chain,” said Daniel Aldridge, managing director of Carl Zeiss Microscopy Ltd.
Around 50 suppliers are typically involved in providing components.
“A chamber has a four-month lead time. There are other components that have a nine-month lead time,” reveals Daniel. “Materials planning is really important. Order forecast accuracy is really important for us. There are seasonal variations and it depends on product launches.”
Little is kept in stock.
“We don’t have much material stored on the line at all,” said Daniel. “There is a goods-in area and all our warehousing is off-site, with material delivery handled by a third-party company.
“We don’t want the local inventory, partly for space but predominantly because we have a lean manufacturing culture.”
The plinth assembly line is divided into two parts – one for the EVO and SIGMA products, one for Gemini and cross-beam products – although they are interchangeable if necessary.
A traffic light system reveals the status of each of the stations along the process – clearly visualising any problems in the manufacturing process. Orange indicates a problem that may be solved quickly, such as a failed component. Red means the issue has been escalated.
The electron columns are assembled in a class 10,000 clean room, where full gowns, hair nets and gloves are worn.
“When the column is completed, it goes into a pumping room for up to three days, reaching its ultimate vacuum,” said Daniel.
“Then the column is integrated onto the plinth. We call that the marriage.”
About 15 per cent of orders have special requirements, such as third party equipment to integrate or a different configuration to the detector. When complete, the quality assurance process begins.
“The test process is extensive,” noted Daniel. “There is a lot of calibration – some of it automated overnight but the majority is manual process, a whole protocol of calibration steps. Quality control is really important for us. The ZEISS brand is known for quality.”
ZEISS House’s impressive facilities will surely help the company maintain that reputation.