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Video: Nanotronics brings 3D microscope to industry

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NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Nanotronics Imaging Inc. has developed a computer-controlled microscope to offer nanoimaging solutions that the firm's leaders hope will have widespread application in the rubber industry.

The firm unveiled its nSPEC 3D microscope at the ACS Rubber Division's International Elastomer Conference and Rubber Expo, held Oct. 14-16 in Nashville.

The conference also was a homecoming of sorts to the rubber industry for Matthew Putman, who serves as Nanotronics' CEO and is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his father John, the president and chief technology officer, who works out of the firm's Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, facility.

John Putman and his wife had founded rubber instrument firm Tech Pro Inc. in 1983 and sold it to the parent of Alpha Technologies in 2008.

“I hadn't been back to the rubber industry since we sold Tech Pro,” John said. “It was like coming back to a family reunion. We know 60-70 percent of the people here and I can't put it any other way but it's great to be home.”

Matthew and John founded Nanotronics Imaging in 2010 and its initial nSPEC microscope was marketed to the semiconductor business. The nSPEC 3D, though, was designed for sophisticated industrial use, the firm said, with the initial focus on uses in the rubber sector.

They said the new offering “combines high quality and imaging purity of optical lenses with advanced computer pattern recognition algorithms, custom 3D printed hardware and artificial intelligence to capture nanoscale 3D images, including quantitative results and structure classifications with a single mouse click or gesture.”

The nSPEC 3D initially was developed because of the inability to capture repeatable topography maps and to automatically interpret features in the 3D image. Nanotronics used what it called a convergence of imaging techniques, available hardware advances and the emergence of real time analysis to allow users “to capture and deliver nanoscale insights in a way that is accessible, understandable and actionable at the fraction of the cost compared to alternative technologies.”

Matthew said the price is comparable to a high-end optical microscope and much less than electron microscopes that currently are used for measuring nanoscales.

Road leading to nSPEC 3D

John Putman (left) and his son Matthew pose with the Nanotronics nSPEC 3D, a product the firm debuted at the Rubber Expo in Nashville, Tenn.

From the latter days at Tech Pro, Matthew said he had become interested in quantifying things that had been left for experts to determine. One of those areas was filler dispersion. Tech Pro had developed an instrument for dispersion measurement that was an advancement at the time, but lacked the flexibility needed to use it for other things. Matthew was happy the industry had accepted the Tech Pro instrument, but always felt they could go further with it. He just didn't know how.

So he spent time learning. He taught at Columbia University in the applied physics department, the only one to focus on elastomers and filled polymers. He spent time overseas studying with such scientists as Jean Leblanc at Paris-Sorbonne Universites, among others.

“I was teaching but I think I was learning more than I was teaching,” Matthew said. “It was wonderful really digging into it and seeing what the issues were, and I think this instrument addresses 100 percent of what (the industry) wanted, but only 5 percent of what actually can be done with this technology.”

John Putman said there is a marked difference in looking at a 2D image of filler dispersion, than a three-dimensional one. “When you look at a 2D image, you can imagine what you're looking at. But when you look at a 3D image and rotate it, you can feel what you're looking at.”

The nSPEC 3D displayed at the Rubber Expo also utilized Oculus Virtual Reality and Leap Motion gesture control to manipulate 3D landscapes. “Then you are immersed in filler dispersion or surface topography,” John said. “It's a totally different sense.”

Matthew said seeing a dot on a 2D screen—unlike a 3D image—doesn't give you the sense that something is major that could cause fractures, processing problems or adhesion issues.

When the Putmans founded Nanotronics, the first product was aimed at semiconductors as the new operation had to develop and scale up its business. “That entire time I was looking forward to this,” Matthew said. “I wanted this instrument that measures in 3D. It didn't matter that it measured carbon black, but it mattered that an industry like the rubber industry could finally use the technology that I'd been thinking about for 13 years.”

High aspirations

For rubber, the instrument measures the quality of the surface, and topography is one of the factors that characterize how well you mix. John sees demand for it coming from chemical companies, custom compounders and filler manufacturers, along with molders and extruders.

“Many people have microscopes in their lab,” Matthew said. “If you could have a microscope that would see things in more dimensions than you're used to and quantify what you're seeing so it could be put into production, that's a big advantage over just having a microscope.”

Not that they're limiting themselves to rubber. They wanted an instrument that could be used in many disciplines, that addressed specific needs of customers, utilized artificial intelligence and allowed companies to study surface topography in an affordable manner.

“I wouldn't say our goal has been to develop an instrument for the rubber instrument,” John said. “We were addressing a big need and it just so happens that we know this industry. What we did naturally fit into here.”

Matthew believes the technology will sell itself, especially after seeing the reaction to it at the Rubber Expo.

“Is the sales effort going to be hard?” he asked. “It will only be hard until they see it. When you have very few new innovations in instrumentation, I think there's skepticism to great transformative changes. ... I feel this is one of those things that could enable not just small incremental change in the industry, but very large change.”

Besides the Brooklyn and Cuyahoga Falls units, Nanotronics has an operation in California to assemble the instruments used in the semiconductor industry. Currently it has 30-35 employees, but it is looking to hire more.

Nanotronics was partially funded from the Founders Fund in San Francisco, led by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal. Nanotronics raised $7 million late last year in a round of financing from Founders Fund, and Thiel sits on the instrument company's board.

In addition to the capital, the Putmans also take from Thiel's philosophy that rather than being the biggest company today, it's better to be the best company in the future.

“To dominate this in five and 10 years from now and still be pushing the boundaries of technological change—that's the goal of the company,” Matthew said.