From IoT to IoP – the Internet of Smart Piezos

A discussion with leading piezo experts on ceramics, nanopositioning, intelligent piezo systems, and weather stations

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Q&A with Dr. Harry Marth, Head of Piezo Technology Innovation, and Dr. Mathias Bach, Head of Piezo Systems at Physik Instrumente (PI), Karlsruhe, Germany.

Concentrated piezo tech know-how: PI’s Dr. Harry Marth Head of Piezo Technology Innovation (left), and Dr. Mathias Bach, Head of Piezo Systems (right)
Concentrated piezo tech know-how: PI’s Dr. Harry Marth Head of Piezo Technology Innovation (left), and Dr. Mathias Bach, Head of Piezo Systems (right)

Most people would be looking forward to retirement after a successful career of 45 years. But Dr. Harry Marth is not like most people. Instead, he is most likely the world’s foremost expert on advanced piezo nanopositioning technologies. You would never know, meeting him casually, because despite all his achievements over several decades with PI, he has remained humble. And while he was recently able to drop most of his operational work load, he is looking forward to shifting his focus even tighter to the research side of business. Still closer to the beginning of his career, Dr. Mathias Bach heads PI’s Piezo Systems Group and is tasked with finding new application fields, as well as moving piezo devices into the IoT era.

100% of piezo technology revolves around this effect: Piezo “elementary cells” change their dimensions when a voltage is applied.
100% of piezo technology revolves around this effect: Piezo “elementary cells” change their dimensions when a voltage is applied.

Q: You have been driving the development of piezo precision systems forward since 1972 – 45 years of service for a still somewhat exotic technology. After starting out in the scientific community and moving into industrial R&D, 35 years ago, have you concluded your research?

Focused on applied research: Piezo technology expert Harry Marth
Focused on applied research: Piezo technology expert Harry Marth

Dr. Marth: No. There’s always something new to find out about the piezo effect and its value for advancing technology, but recently the progress in materials has been showing some limitations. However, we are working on combining piezo actuator technology with other drive technologies, looking for new applications, and continually improving the performance of piezo nanopositioning systems by advancing digital control algorithms and drive electronics.

Much of the advancement in piezo technology was driven by the semiconductor industry
Much of the advancement in piezo technology was driven by the semiconductor industry

Q: New applications – The currently booming semiconductor industry is your most important business sector…

Dr. Bach: Correct, the semiconductor industry is very important for us as a piezo nanopositioning system supplier and keeps supplying new applications from the front end to the back end of the technology. Silicon Photonics (SiP), for example, is barely past its teething stage and requires extremely fast alignment mechanisms with nanometer range accuracy. Outside of the semiconductor sector, the machine tool and printing industries also use piezo motion systems to compensate for vibrations and increase production speed.

90% of these can only be manufactured because PI’s piezo nanopositioning technology helps to advance semiconductor manufacturing processes
90% of these can only be manufactured because PI’s piezo nanopositioning technology helps to advance semiconductor manufacturing processes

Q: How did you get to where the company is today?

Dr. Marth: Well, currently around 90% of all smartphones are manufactured with semiconductor processes that rely on our technology. We have grown together with the semiconductor and photonics sector and nowadays our technology is represented in a large number of applications. In the beginning, few other industries required the type of precision we achieve with our piezo systems, certainly not the automotive industry. Starting in the 1980s, the semiconductor industry began pushing us to develop motion systems with nanometer resolution.

Q: Which you wanted to sell?

Dr. Marth: Sure, but it wasn’t that simple. In that day, nobody in the semiconductor industry had any experience with piezo technology. That’s the reason why we decided to develop complete piezo motion solutions for the market. In a nutshell, we offer an integrated system, including the feedback sensors, guiding system, control algorithms, drive electronics and software, all out of one hand.

A six axis ultra-precision piezo stage for next generation AFM/surface metrology [http://www.pi-usa.us/blog/ultra-high-precision-afm-with-6-axis-laser-and-piezo-scanner-for-traceable-measurements-on-semiconductors-and-step-standards/]. Applications include CD critical dimension (smallest reproducible structures) measurements in the semiconductor industry.
A six axis ultra-precision piezo stage for next generation AFM/surface metrology. Applications include CD critical dimension (smallest reproducible structures) measurements in the semiconductor industry.

Q: What about the ceramics?

Dr. Bach: We started our own piezo ceramic manufacturing division almost 3 decades ago. That is an important competitive advantage because we can exercise influence on the ceramic material, do the research, and adapt to customer requirements. Actuator-type piezo ceramics continues to be a very small niche market for large industrial ceramics manufacturers and it is a market difficult to serve. Our piezo ceramic actuators and motors are cultivated especially for applications with precision positioning tasks and need to deliver bulletproof reliability and extremely long lifetime.

Much of PI’s piezo reliability relies on these: Know-how and state-of-the-art equipment for in-house piezo manufacturing at PI Ceramic. PI piezo actuators have literarily shown out-of-this-world reliability in an application on the Mars rover [http://www.pi-usa.us/blog/precision-motion-and-positioning-equipment-on-mars-rover-curiosity-still-going-strong/]
Much of PI’s piezo reliability relies on these: Know-how and state-of-the-art equipment for in-house piezo manufacturing at PI Ceramic. PI piezo actuators have literarily shown out-of-this-world reliability in an application on the Mars rover

Q: You have been building up your piezo ceramic materials expertise since the 1990s – what does that mean for the industry?

Dr. Marth: Over the decades, we have learned how piezo ceramics behave and how to fine-tune the ingredients. That is our wealth of data that we use for modeling the piezo lifetime and the motion characteristics. Other precision motion providers must take whatever ceramics they can find on the market and that often means limitations on performance and lifetime. Talking about lifetime – there’s no place for production downtimes in the semiconductor industry. As a precaution, companies are more inclined to change components beforehand in order to prevent a shut-down. That does not always make economic sense. We are able to reliably assess the performance of a piezo ceramic actuator.

A non-magnetic, UHV compatible piezo motor driven mini hexapod. Many processes in the semiconductor industry require nanometer precision motion in multiple degrees of freedom. PI’s NEXLINE® piezo motor technology won the Semi Technology Innovation Showcase Award in 2005. [http://www.pi-usa.us/pdf/PI_Semi_Technology_Innovation Award_Showcase_2005.pdf]
A non-magnetic, UHV compatible piezo motor driven mini hexapod. Many processes in the semiconductor industry require nanometer precision motion in multiple degrees of freedom. PI’s NEXLINE® piezo motor technology won the Semi Technology Innovation Showcase Award in 2005.

Q: Is that the reason for digitizing the piezo?

Dr. Bach: Yes, each piezo will soon have its own IP address (laughs) – even in a vacuum. Seriously though: The piezo ceramics reacts to temperature, humidity and air pressure, like any other drive system. We want to record and analyze these environmental influences to further improve our lifetime models or even perform remote maintenance. We basically need a weather station for each piezo so to speak, but it has to be miniscule in size to be integrated, because a decisive advantage is the small installation space our technology requires.

Reaching for the stars, history and future: A piezo-driven active mirror platform from the 90’s for astronomical telescopes on top of a 6 DOF hexapod. It improves the effective optical resolution of earthbound telescopes by taking the twinkle out of the stars. Many of the world’s most powerful telescopes use PI technology to improve their performance. PI recently won a contract to provide thousands of special hybrid piezo / servo motor actuators for the largest optical telescope in the world [ELT blog article].
Reaching for the stars, history and future: A piezo-driven active mirror platform from the 90’s for astronomical telescopes on top of a 6 DOF hexapod. It improves the effective optical resolution of earthbound telescopes by taking the twinkle out of the stars. Many of the world’s most powerful telescopes use PI technology to improve their performance. PI recently won a contract to provide thousands of special hybrid piezo / servo motor actuators for the largest optical telescope in the world.

Q: Is it not already too late for that?  Servo motors or magnetic direct drives will soon be able to do that.

Dr. Marth: It’s not too late. The piezo effect is more complex than traditional drive technologies and requires more control knowledge and sensor technology. We have data from customer surveys and we are responding to them.

Q: You will need to get into the user interfaces of machines, comply with or create standards for communication – are your piezo experts able to do this?

Dr. Bach: We need system architects. Our colleagues must be proficient in piezo technology, have knowledge of cabling and contacting, control and software, flow charts and communication – it’s difficult to find these types of experts, so I have to agree with you on that. But we do have one advantage: Our engineers work very closely with our customers from the start of each project – this puts us in a position to cooperate on the definition of the communication requirements and find a solution.

PI has been supporting the machine tool industry for decades. Early design of a custom piezo XY nanopositioning tool for precision turning applications.
PI has been supporting the machine tool industry for decades. Early design of a custom piezo XY nanopositioning tool for precision turning applications.

Q: And what about the traditional machining industry – what do you tell their engineers at the upcoming trade fairs?

Dr. Marth: Even traditional machining engineers want work to with more precision and they are intrigued by our technology. We see applications for piezo systems in cutting and grinding.  We also combine classical drive systems or hexapod parallel kinematics machines with piezo motion to provide more options. In the past, some customers were under the impression “PI” was short for “Piezo Instruments” – but that’s not true. We engineer precision. At Physik Instrumente, the customer can chose from air bearings, magnetic direct drives, motor screw drives, hexapods, and, of course, a large variety of piezo motors and positioning systems.

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/embed/vcdJh-ELcRY?rel=0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em><strong>Video</strong>: Cross-pollination and innovation across different engineering disciplines: V8 piezo linear motor provides higher forces in a smaller package. </em></a>
Video: Cross-pollination and innovation across different engineering disciplines: V8 piezo linear motor provides higher forces in a smaller package.

Q: Ceramics in a machine tool – what is the acceptance?

Dr. Bach: We still need to further educate parts of that industry. Ceramics are more sensitive and that’s the reason why we have to take our customers by the hand, help with the integration, and encapsulate the systems. However, the semiconductor industry provides excellent references for mechanical engineering. Then, there are laser machining applications with fast piezo beam steering systems and certainly in the future, the field of active optics for laser beam shaping.

Piezo ceramics in a machine tool: Piezo actuators improve the performance of die-sinking EDM machining [http://www.pi-usa.us/blog/accelerated-edm-microstructuring-aided-by-electroceramic-transducers/]
Piezo ceramics in a machine tool: Piezo actuators improve the performance of die-sinking EDM machining

Q: So, the intelligent piezo system will become standard?

Dr. Bach: No, we don’t necessarily need intelligent piezo actuators for every application. If a machine in a research lab is down for a few days, we’re not talking about an economic disaster – unlike when a semiconductor production line comes to a screeching halt. In addition to more complex and advanced systems, we will continue to provide simple actuators and motion solutions as well.

Silicon photonics [http://www.pi-usa.us/blog/history-and-future-of-photonics-alignment-automation-test-assembly-of-sip-components/], the latest craze in the semiconductor industry. Here two piezo XYZ scanners mounted on two hexapods speed up wafer level testing. (Image: Cascade Microtech, a FormFactor company)
Silicon photonics, the latest craze in the semiconductor industry. Here two piezo XYZ scanners mounted on two hexapods speed up wafer level testing. (Image: Cascade Microtech, a FormFactor company)
Further reading:

Watch piezo motor types videos

Watch different types of piezo actuators videos

Read Piezo Motion Control Tutorial

Learn more about PI Precision Motion Systems, Stages, Components: www.pi-usa.us/products/index.php

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About PI

PI (Physik Instrumente) is a leading manufacturer of precision motion control equipment, piezo motors, air bearing stages and hexapod parallel-kinematics for semiconductor applications, photonics, bio-nano-technology and medical engineering. PI has been developing and manufacturing standard & custom precision products with piezoceramic and electromagnetic drives for 4 decades. The company has been ISO 9001 certified since 1994 and provides innovative, high-quality solutions for OEM and research. PI is present worldwide with fifteen subsidiaries, R&D / engineering on 3 continents and total staff of more than 1,000.

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