Instrumentation manufacturer, Prior Scientific, is launching new products after achieving a ‘revolutionary’ leap in nanopositioning accuracy – after funding from Innovate UK.
The company specialises in high-speed high-precision solutions for motion, automation, and optical systems.
Its Queensgate brand of nanopositioning solutions for sensors and stages used in semiconductor, life sciences and additive manufacturing industries enable measurement and positioning to sub-nanometre levels of accuracy.
The Cambridge-based business has achieved significant increases in the accuracy of their piezo actuated nanopositioning stages after working with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) the UK’s designated institute for measurement standards.
As a result, Prior is launching a new product to manufacturers of atomic force microscopes, semiconductors, and 3D printers, consolidating its position as leader in its market.
The project was supported by Analysis for Innovators (A4I), a grant funding programme run by Innovate UK, the UK’s national innovation agency. The programme helps businesses access cutting-edge R&D and expertise of skills and equipment at 9 national measurement centres across the country, whilst also offering grant funding for some or all of the project costs.
Commenting on Prior’s experience of the A4I programme, Craig Goodman, Product manager, Prior Scientific, said: “Innovate UK’s A4I programme has enabled us to achieve revolutionary increases in accuracy for our nanopositioning stages.
“The funded access to NPL’s cutting-edge R&D and expertise has achieved a leap in capability that was previously unthinkable. Its nanometrology and capability to capture data is unmatched and we got to work with their best mathematicians to develop the algorithms to apply to our Queensgate products. This will help us to remain ahead of the curve against our competitors.”
Prior was established in 1919 as a manufacturer of optical microscopes and has evolved to produce precision automation and optical products.
In 2018 it acquired Queensgate, a manufacturer of nanopositioning and measurement solutions used in atomic force microscopy, hard disc testing, lithography and metrology.
Its Queensgate brand which is over 40 years is manufactured at the EPIC centre in Devon UK and exported globally. It has seen significant growth since acquisition, increasing turnover and its number of employees.
NPL uses Queensgate high precision nanopositioning stages for some of its atomic force microscopes, including NPL’s extremely accurate metrological AFM.
Prior approached the A4I programme to improve the accuracy of its nanopositioning solutions. It was partnered with NPL, giving them access to specialist 3D metrology equipment and data analysis capabilities.
Craig added: “The challenge we were facing is that when you try to move in x, y or z axis, no matter how good the mechanics are, there is movement and errors in the non-moving axis, which is also known as crosstalk. It is very hard to compensate for, especially for longer-range stages.
“So, what we looked at was a way that would efficiently characterise these errors and compensate for them in firmware.”
Experts at NPL were able to record the motion of two Queensgate products, collect data based on these errors, and devise 3D spatial correction algorithms to increase the accuracy of the nanopositioning stages.
The outcome was a reduction or error to 4% and 9% of the original factors, a significant improvement in spatial positioning for multi-axis stages.
Prior now has a measurement and calibration methodology that achieves previously impossible throughput, precision, and accuracy to outright enablement of applications.
New products being developed will benefit manufacturers of atomic force microscope (AFM) and semiconductors, and additive manufacturing. This includes Prior’s new Queensgate product QGSPXY700, slated to be rolled out to the markets within weeks.
The success prompted Prior to apply for further support from A4I for two more projects.
Simon Yarwood, Knowledge Transfer Manager – Industrial Technologies, A4I at Innovate UK KTN, said: “Our approach to choosing SMEs for funding is unique, giving agnostic companies a chance to improve their productivity and their competitiveness by solving hard technical analysis type problems that maybe they’ve been battling with for some time.
“Prior is a legacy company, but it had limitations and little access to top quality research and development tools and minds. We helped them bridge this gap and introduced them to NPL, which has world class skills and unique facilities. NPL’s mathematicians worked on this complex project to yield innovative results. The success of the project prompted Prior to submit further ideas for funding.”
A4I has been running since 2016 and brings together nine national centres of excellence in measurement, tackling challenges affecting existing processes, products, or services.
Across nine rounds of funding, it has supported over 250 companies resulting in over £600M of benefit for those businesses, such as increased productivity and turnover, reduced waste, and the creation of new and upskilled jobs.
The programme’s aim is to help boost a company’s productivity or competitiveness by enabling the UK’s top scientists, using their other world-class facilities, to work with companies to address problems in innovative ways. Key to the success of A4I are the Brokerage Meetings that are arranged between the companies and experts from the A4I partners. These meetings allow the company to discuss their problem with experts who want to work with the company to address the problem.
Round 10 is now open.