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What physicists can learn from industry

adam.jpg
Adam Kollin shows off R9

By Hamish Johnston

If you are struggling to get your experiment to work, you might want to pop into a local manufacturing plant or hospital for a few tips.

That’s the impression I was left with after a fascinating conversation with Adam Kollin — the founder and president of RHK Technology.

The company makes atomic force microscopes. But it is probably most famous for its control units — ultraprecise electronics that allow AFMs to resolve single atoms on a surface.

An AFM works by positioning a tiny tip with great precision near the surface of a sample. The tip is designed to vibrate at a certain frequency, and properties of this vibration change depending on the structure of the nearby surface.

An image is taken by moving the tip from one place to another — but this also affects the vibrations — so its important to let the tip settle down for a while before making a measurement. The key to making a rapid scan is to wait long enough to achieve the desired resolution, but not too long or the scan will take forever.

Physicsts that use AFM had worked out a way to deal with this problem, but according to Kollin they had it all wrong. He knows this because he happened to be talking to an engineer with a background in automated manufacturing.

It turns out that robots used in manufacturing suffer from the same problem — their arms move quickly from one place to another and then settle down to perform a very precise function. And the engineers who design manufacturing lines have devoted alot of time to understanding the best way to do this.

According to Kollin, RHK Technology has embraced this knowledge to improve its products — as well a borrowing ideas from medical imaging and particle physics.

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