AZoM speaks to Dr Chris Blomfield about the history and future of Kratos analytical a leading surface analysis company and how the important their user meetings are.
Who are Kratos and what do you do?
The surface analysis business of Kratos Analytical has been established for nearly 50 years. In 1969 we launched the first commercial XPS instrument, the ES100, and since then we have evolved the product range from the ES range to the XSAM range and currently the AXIS range of instruments. In 1989 Kratos was purchased by the Shimadzu Corporation, which allowed us to do a lot more investment and development in our long-term goals. This has led to us bringing to market products such as our magnetic lens and coaxial charge compensation system. We have the spherical mirror analyser too and all of these are key components for our current technology. Latterly we have developed a gas cluster ion source, once again showing our consistent history of evolving our product to meet market needs and even leading our market.
The business has its headquaters in Manchester, where we have our R&D and manufacturing hub. We have maintained a North West based supply chain, but we also have demonstration sales facilities in China as it is an expanding market, we also have a facility in Japan as the headquarters of Shimadzu are in Kyoto, and we have a sales and service office in New York. We are a global company with instruments installed in every continent of the world.
Where can your products be found?
The distribution of our products between the academic and industrial labs is varied, but globally it is about a fifty-fifty split between an industrial and an academic laboratories. We also have lots of systems installed in national research centers, including the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the UK and the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) in Germany . Historically, in the 1970s and 1980s, Europe led the world in surface analysis, and many instruments were installed by the early adopters in industries such as ICI in the UK. The European markets dominated with academics, developing new instruments, new materials and new technologies. We're still seeing, in the American market for example, quite a good distribution between industrial and academic users. The Chinese market is growing rapidly at the moment, dominated by academic customers. We expect in the future those academic advancements to roll out into local Chinese industry.
By contrast, in southeast Asia, many of our instruments are installed in industrial laboratories, in Japan and in Korea, where we've got a lot of high tech materials development companies as our Users. They are using XPS not only for product development but for product quality control monitoring. Furthermore, if you look at the number of academic periodical publications, there's a rapid growth in the number of publications using XPS, as more and more materials and technologies rely upon thin film surface analysis. XPS, as a technique, is probably the most applicable, easiest, and also gives you a lot of information in terms of surface chemical composition and qualification.
What is your typical customer?
Well, there's a wide range of applications for XPS, any field that requires analysis of thin film surface composition or surface modification can be applicable to XPS particularly. However of late there's been a lot of development with our gas cluster ion source, which allows us to remove layers of material, initially with organics, and we've expanded the use of that into inorganic materials without doing any damage or compositional modification. That has led to some interesting applications, particularly in lithium ion batteries, where often these battery materials are thin film materials deposited by techniques such as atomic layer deposition. XPS can determine what the researchers want to know such as ‘what's the composition and chemistry of the film’ as you go through the thin films? With the typical film thickness is of the order of 100 to 200 or 300 nanometers using our gas cluster ion source, we can remove, layer by layer, elements of those films, to discover the composition and chemical state.
In other research areas we're seeing people using our in-situ high temperature catalyst reaction cell, where you can dose catalysts with particular reactive gases and conduct oxidation and reduction studies.. But I think globally, XPS is so successful because there is quite a broad range of applications, and many technologies these days are driven by thin film deposition methods or surface modification, for which XPS is the ideal technique to analyze them.
The AXIS Supra instrument is our latest model, and we've introduced this system that provides easy access to surface analysis for many Users. It is possible to add to that system a surface science station to allow you to do in-situ type of measurements. So we've taken the research element of the in-situ deposition system, together with the easy access and high throughput capabilities to open the market for that instrument to researchers as well as general laboratories where they want to do a lot of surface composition analysis.
Generally, I think we pride ourselves on our closeness to our customers. We like to understand their needs. Today's User is tomorrow's customer. We've people from institutes that have bought the second or third generation instrument, over a period of perhaps 20 years, and developing a product that encourages existing customers to buy a second one is really related to the fact we have such good customer relationship. Our product development is driven from a number of areas, we have application labs around the world where we get feedback from people who are looking at the capabilities of our instrument, but also our User meetings allow us to learn how the instruments are being used.
People will inform us what they would like to do.and many incremental developments of the instrument have come from these collaborations. This is evident in the software applications, particularly for imaging or quantification or the way that we report our data to the user community. A lot of those innovations have come from interactions that have really been fostered and established at our User meetings. We have User Meetings in Europe and the US every 2 years, and have held our first Chinese Users meeting in 2018. So we really are trying to interact with our global customer base and feed that into our product development roadmap.
What products do you offer?
The AXIS Supra is our latest generation instrument, we launched it about three years ago, it's been successful globally. The key features of that instrument are that it brings research grade performance, in terms of spectroscopy and the minimum spot size you can analyze, as well as the highest resolution chemical state imaging, but it also has the ability to auto-load samples, so that a university or a central facility can have a number of Users coming to the instrument and loading their sample automatically while one sample is being analyzed, thus increasing sample analysis capability. It does allow for a high throughput of sample analysis, and it means the AXIS Supra really can operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
As well as that, though, we have the ability to add other techniques to the system, such as Auger electron spectroscopy (AES), ultraviolet photoemission spectroscopy (UPS) and ion scattering spectroscopy (ISS). Another feature that's been bought by perhaps a third of customers is in-situ surface modification options provided on the surface science station. Our products offer a complete solution for materials surface characterization.
How do you see the field with photoelectron spectroscopy changing and developing in the coming five to ten years?
In the short term, we're trying as a company, to lower the barriers to entry, so making the instruments easier to operate, ensuring they've got a higher uptime, ensuring they can be used continuously. The automation of the system, self-calibration, all of these lower the barrier to entry or make the cost per analysis much lower. In the longer term, I can see XPS moving more and more from the sample characterization, perhaps closer to production, where we want to monitor some of these processes that have been developed in the R&D lab and perhaps will transfer to the production environment. It would be exciting to see surface analysis tools integrated into manufacturing processes.
Which industries do you see evolving with the use of XPS?
In the short term, there's a lot of applications for surface analysis in the battery industry, driven by the move to electric cars, but catalysis, photovoltaics, really any industry that's reliant upon thin films. There's quite a lot of excitement around biocompatibility, preparing surfaces to be biocompatible, and at the moment, a lot of that work is in the R&D lab, but as that transfers into industry, we expect those industries to take up more and more surface characterization led by XPS.
How important are the relationships that you have with your users?
Very important,the average lifetime of a large capital investment like an XPS instrument is around ten years, so we're looking at maintaining that relationship over 10, 20 plus years, We need our Users to have faith in Kratos, that we’ll support the product we've produced today for the next 10 years. So our relationship with our customers is very important. We host User meetings every two years. We have an active Applications Group that are always open to customer suggestions and encourage customer interactions. We solve a lot of problems or suggest our Users how they might create experiments. We find in academic institutes, a user will be using the instrument for two, three years, perhaps finishing their PhD or their postdoctoral research and move on. Often we have to retrain within the same institute another generation of users. So in that way, we build up a large body of expertise including what people want to do with their instruments and how they evolve with different projects.
The applications group within the Kratos family, in Japan, in China, in the US and in Europe, is a strong element, and that feeds into our product development roadmap as well.
Why are the user meetings so useful in development?
It’s allowed me, as Business Manager, to justify the investment in the software development. We had the ‘Vision’ software, we've replaced that with the ‘ESCApe’ software so really there was a lot of investment in that. There's a lot of man years spent writing and developing new acquisition and procesing software. When there's a real User demand for the software to evolve, the user meetings are a really important voice for us to inform our research direction and use resource in one area as opposed to another so that we are genuinely delivering what our customers need based on their feedback.
How much do you invest in research and development?
Last year in the surface analysis group, nearly 17% of our sales turnover was invested in R&D, and that's not for today, it's for tomorrow's product, as well as maintaining the current product. That's quite a significant level of investment in R&D, and that goes across software and hardware development. Increasingly, the application of the software is what perhaps differentiates manufacturers and products. To have a software application that is really tailored to the needs of the customer can give us a sales advantage. That's where we're focusing a lot more effort over the next few years and we'll see development in that area to make more application specific software that solves particular customer needs.
About Dr Chris Blomfield
Dr Chris Blomfield is Surface Analysis Business Manager at Kratos Analytical, part of Shimadzu Corporation. As Business Manager, he is responsible for the commercial success of Kratos Surface Analysis products as well as development of new business and markets. He joined the company in 1996 as an Applications Specialist after completing his Ph.D. at Sheffield Hallam University studying metal contacts for improved II-VI (CdTe, CdS, ZnSe) semiconductor devices. In 2006 Chris was awarded an MBA (Merit) from Manchester Business School.
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