From research instrument to industrial tool

The Condor project ran from 2007 until 2011.

This is an archived page.


For all high-tech embedded systems of today, it is a matter of survival to include the most advanced knowledge, have the best possible performance, the most flexible functionality, and the shortest product creation cycles achievable. In order to stretch the limits with respect to system qualities such as performance, reliability/robustness, evolvability and costs continuous innovation is needed in all of the technological disciplines together with overall system architecting and design.

Research challenge

In the creation cycle of high-tech embedded systems it is essential that design choices can be explored as early as possible. The application of scientifically grounded models for the various sub-domains and for the system as a whole plays a crucial role. Instead of building and rebuilding hardware prototypes, modeling allows the analysis and prediction of system qualities and therefore will help to get to the optimal product at lower costs and shorter lead times. Next to this, models will be needed as part of the complex system control. Finally, model based engineering shall deliver software architectures and realizations in accordance with functional, performance and evolvability requirements.

A good example of a complex high-tech product is the electron microscope. Quite a number of disciplines come together in its design, e.g. (high-voltage) electron physics, electromagnetism and electron optics, image sensors and image processing, mechatronics, instrument conditioning (vacuum, heat), electronics (amplifiers, sensors, embedded control) and software engineering. Because of the strong multi-disciplinary nature of the instrument’s inside, its optimal development will benefit greatly from advanced methods and tools. For the next generation electron microscopes the challenge is to combine the high performance of the present day research type instruments with ease-of-use and flexibility as needed by a variety of new customers and their applications (such as nano-measurements).

The electron microscope as industrial reference case

FEI Company’s electron microscopes belong to today’s complex machines and products (often referred to as embedded systems) characterized by highly complex compositions of technological components including so-called ‘embedded compute systems’.

The electron microscope brings many complex and delicate physical phenomena together within one machine. Delicate here means sensitive to implementation details, functions that are critically dependent, and prone to mutual interferences and to disturbances from outside. Think of the electron beam created by an electron gun and accelerated by hundreds of kilo Volts through an electromagnetic lens system to hit the sample. Consider the beam alignments, adjustments for focus and corrections for astigmatism all along the beam with the possibility of magnetic disturbances and mechanical vibrations from outside. Or think of the extremely precise (nano-meter) positioning of the sample in three dimensions and at different tilting angles for the various methods of exposure (transmission and scanning). Or the image processing needed as the central control feedback for the instrument.

And last but not least there are the internal processors and control computer with all the algorithms for the instrument control, image processing and calibration.

Today’s microscopes require a very experienced operator to control the many parameters and to get reliable qualitative images out of the machine. For next generations of microscopes this has to be automated to an extent that a non-expert user can do the work in an effective and efficient way, including the use of the instrument under remote control. In addition to this there will be a variety of customer categories with a corresponding variety of application requirements, which may be changing over time. These have to be realized on a common system platform, which however shall preserve the excellent performance of the high-end research type of microscope. Finally there is a growing need for the electron microscope as reliable quantitative research instrument, e.g. in the emerging nano-measurement application domain.

Research objectives and approach

It is clear from the perspective of present day precision critical instruments that system performance and evolvability are two very essential system qualities. For the Condor project these system aspects will be the general research themes. The project will use the electron microscope system as research vehicle to take them up. For the applicable customer categories an instrument platform is needed that provides: 

  • Performance high-end image quality and measurements accuracy, productivity (fast response times), ease-of-use, and instrument autonomy (auto tuning and calibration).

  • Evolvability adaptability to various applications and different (and changing) requirements during the planned life cycle.

 The Condor project will deal with these research themes through problem oriented research cases which will investigate and try to find ground-breaking solutions for main functions of the electron microscope system. These problem-oriented research cases will probe into: 

  • Auto-focus
    Automatic focus and correction for astigmatism for scanning microscope systems effective for a wide variety of samples.

  • Positioning
    Quicker, more accurate, more stable and robust positioning of the sample by making use of combined beam and sample actuation.

  • Self-optimizing imaging chain
    According to criteria like throughput, precision, and fit for metrology use the controllable parameters of the image formation chain to create an optimal image.

  • Quantitative measurements and auto-calibration
    Enhance the quantitative measurement performance of the electron microscope using models for design improvements and as part of the instrument control. As such predict and improve the accuracy, repeatability (between measurements and between instruments) and stability (over time) of sample data obtained.

Modeling (of instrument and image formation) and system identification, system design and verification, and model based software engineering will be distinct research activities in the course of all these cases. Model based development methods and other methodologies for embedded systems engineering will be developed along with the research on these cases.

Research results

The industrial relevance of the scientific concepts found in the project must be proven. This will be done by implementation and test on an actual electron microscope of solutions for the research cases (in the form of demonstrator prototypes). Scientific results will be presented at conferences and published as articles or symposium proceedings.

Partners and project organisation

Condor is a joint project of a consortium of industrial and academic partners. The Embedded Systems Institute (ESI) has the responsibility for the project management and knowledge dissemination. ESI also coaches the research activities by assigning Research Fellows to the project. The carrying industrial partner is FEI Company, an expert company in the domain of electron microscopes and owner of the industrial problem. Academic partners are Eindhoven University of Technology, Delft University of Technology, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and University of Antwerp. Second participating industrial partner is Technolution, an SME company on technical automation and embedded systems.

Condor started in February 2007, and was partly funded by the Dutch Government.

For part of the project time the researchers were co-located at the ESI facilities or at FEI Company in Eindhoven. The project will have an electron microscope available for experimenting and prototyping.


The Condor publications can be found on the publications page; search for Condor