Customer-centric innovation is helping US manufacturer Kimball Physics to prosper in its specialist niche of ultrahigh-vacuum electron and ion optics
Vocation, collaboration and innovation provide a unifying frame of reference for the physicists and engineers of Kimball Physics, a New Hampshire-based technology company that specializes in the design and manufacture of precision electron sources, electron optics and ultrahigh-vacuum (UHV) chambers and components. That frame of reference, it seems, is as solid today as it was 50 years ago, when physics professor Chuck Crawford spun Kimball Physics out from his research programme at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Consistency matters to Crawford, which is why the goal back then remains the mission at Kimball Physics today: “To advance humankind by doing good physics – specifically electron optics and vacuum physics – and all the while growing, being good citizens, making a living, and having fun.” Context aside, Crawford’s commercial vision was to identify an opportunity to advance the field of UHV electron and ion optics, and specifically the niche where Kimball Physics could add most value for a range of customers – from university researchers and US national laboratories to multinational “big-science” facilities and semiconductor industry OEMs.
On that canvas, Kimball Physics has carved out – and subsequently scaled – its specialist niche to encompass the design and manufacture of electron optical equipment for the semiconductor industry; electron sources for electron microscopes and electron lithography; as well as custom high-brightness sources and related technologies for free-electron lasers, particle accelerators and X-ray systems. That custom offering includes a mix of products tailored for the exacting requirements of the space industry as well as specialist Multi CF vacuum chambers for “cold physics” research and other exotic physics experiments.
Employee focus meets customer focus
Remarkably, five decades after starting the business, Crawford remains engaged with the operations at Kimball Physics. “Chuck is still in regular communication and I doubt he will ever stop thinking up new ideas,” explains Abigail LePage, a physicist and Kimball Physics’ president and chief executive officer. “He doesn’t consider what he does as work. He’s having fun and that mindset informs the collective culture here at Kimball Physics.”
That culture is further defined by “open-book management”, a non-hierarchical working model that seeks to empower all staff by treating them as partners in the business. Transparency is the key, ensuring Kimball Physics’ teams have a holistic view of the company’s financial metrics – revenue, profit, cash flow, capital expenditure and the like – so that they can make informed decisions to drive operational and strategic priorities.
That trust in the workforce yields significant gains – and not just commercially. “Many of our staff see what they do as more of a vocation,” claims David Altobelli, senior scientist at Kimball Physics. “Everybody takes a lot of pride in their work and pushing the technology forward.”
“No” is not an option for physicists when an important project must move forward. Necessity is the driver of innovation
David Altobelli, senior scientist at Kimball Physics
If vocation underpins the work ethic among Kimball Physics’ scientists and engineers, the vendor’s overarching commercial drivers are shaped by a collective focus on new product innovation and an open, inclusive dialogue with customers large and small. “Innovation at Kimball Physics is all about assimilation,” says Altobelli. “Tracking the pulse of the market requires close collaboration with scientific and industry customers to ensure that our product development aligns with their research and commercial priorities.”
As such, about 30% of the products that Kimball Physics ships each year are custom-made to users’ bespoke technical requirements. “We’re motivated by the challenging problems and opportunities that we see in the custom business,” Altobelli adds. “After all, today’s one-off product, for a single end-user, can evolve into tomorrow’s standard product for many.”
Unsurprisingly, Kimball Physics is active along many R&D coordinates – in each case working closely with customers. NASA is a case in point. More than 10 years ago, well before additive manufacturing became a mainstream technology, the vendor teamed up with colleagues at the US space agency to build a platform for electron-beam free-form fabrication – an innovation that may ultimately enable additive manufacturing in space. Other NASA projects involve laboratory testing and characterization of satellite shielding materials – essentially using electron and ion sources to simulate the solar wind that a craft will experience – as well as specific product innovations to minimize power consumption and footprint (e.g. delivering a 50 μA electron-beam source for satellite positioning that consumes <100 mW).
“We do take risks – within reason – and are prepared to back projects that some vendors would walk away from,” explains LePage, citing Kimball Physics’ work on the optics for novel electron sources such as superconducting quantum dots, cold electron sources and laser-excited emitters. “These more speculative plays are crucial in loading our toolbox for future product innovations,” she adds.
High-value vacuum innovation
Another promising commercial opportunity is ultrafast electron microscopy, with Kimball Physics supplying electron sources and column optics to research groups for a new generation of microscopes that offer temporal resolutions in the sub-nanosecond regime for single-shot applications (with up to 10 million electrons/pulse) and into the deep femtosecond range for stroboscopic applications (with thousands of electrons/pulse).
Elsewhere, the firm’s Multi CF UHV chambers and associated hardware – “the result of inadequately supervised physicists running amuck with CNC machines”, according to Crawford – provide a core enabling technology in cold-atom physics experiments, where accuracy of port alignment is critical for optimal laser access. A high-profile collaboration with NASA’s Cold Atom Lab, for example, has seen the Kimball Physics Multi-CF “mini” cube UHV chamber deployed on the International Space Station to support such studies. Other Multi CF applications include electron gun and ion source housings; detector housings and subsystems; as well as portable, low-cost UHV chambers.
“Our Multi CF chambers enable UHV operation with enhanced capabilities – more of a ‘value-added’ system or instrument housing than just an evacuated environment,” claims Altobelli. What he’s referring to is an array of unique Multi CF sizes and configurations, featuring precise geometries for optimized internal access, highly polished surfaces, contoured interiors and minimal welds, and annular grooves around most ports to allow mounting of internal hardware and devices. Equally, while most of the standard Multi CF chambers and fittings are made from monolithic structures of 316L stainless steel, customized options are also available in titanium for more demanding technical requirements (such as reduction of hydrogen outgassing, local magnetic effects and weight).
Looking ahead, a significant chunk of Kimball Physics’ long-range R&D effort will focus on realizing next-generation electron sources and optimized optics to address the already large (and growing) markets for electron-beam inspection, metrology and electron lithography within the semiconductor industry. “Electron emitters with precision optics are our dominant product line and key for our future product innovation,” notes LePage.
Of more immediate concern to LePage and colleagues is mapping a course through the current Covid-19 disruption, ensuring Kimball Physics continues to remain on a firm footing as it looks to the next 50 years. “We’re proud of being an innovative and solid high-tech company,” she concludes, “and we don’t intend to let the pandemic change that.”