The AFM NEXT measuring machine is one of the biggest and most precise of its kind in the world. And it's capable of measuring the world's most precise mirrors. If you were to blow up one of these mirrors to the size of Germany, the greatest deviations from the nominal form would be just 0.1 millimeters. The AFM is an atomic force microscope and works non-destructively. This is a tremendous advantage since each mirror being measured costs as much as a single-family home. To deliver this unique level of precision, the measuring machine requires an extremely heavy granite base that is protected against fluctuations in temperature and air pressure, as well as any noise and vibrations. It's a veritable El Dorado for measuring technicians and a challenge that Felix is currently up against.
We are challenging the limits of what is technically feasible – and we're constantly shifting these boundaries through our ideas and innovations.
Felix works as a machine architect at ZEISS. This role sees him collaborating with measuring process developers and the production department to perform a needs analysis for future machine generations, as well as coordinating the development work and taking responsibility for the machine's performance.
"This measuring machine is unique the world over," says Felix. "We are challenging the limits of what is technically feasible – and we're constantly shifting these boundaries through our ideas and innovations." If the previous mirror generation weighed several dozen kilos, the testing objects for this AFM can weigh as much as several hundred kilos. But precision has not suffered in the slightest – despite the increased dimensions. Felix is clearly fascinated by his job: "We've achieved precision of 50 picometers. We can only do that by using an extremely stiff construction, i.e. a machine placed on a vibration-insulated platform with a noise level of below 30 db – which is as quiet as a person breathing. Every sound wave has the potential to jeopardize our measuring results."
As a machine architect, Felix oversees the AFM NEXT project from the initial planning phase onward. The first milestone in a development project like this starts with the customer specifications. First, all their requirements are written down: efficiency in production, process developers that work precisely, cleanliness in the cleanroom, and an ability to withstand external influences. Even the location will be carefully planned out in the future production hall – and will be as far away as possible from vibrating machines and other disruptions. The project also involves mechanical engineers and drive technology specialists, as well as measuring and control technology experts, software developers, physicists, product managers and the Operations department – which are ZEISS' production specialists.
"ZEISS truly employs the best of the best," says Felix. "My job is primarily to ensure that the right people work in the right places. And that, together, they strike the right balance between timing, performance and costs." This produces a feasibility study, a cost estimate and sees an external supplier being appointed. "What we're looking for is a partner who will be able to meet all of our needs. And that's no easy feat – because we really are quite demanding. The next step sees me bringing the machine to life. "My" AFM will be shipped two years from now. I'll oversee the machine until it's up and running, and will continue to support the operators beyond that time. We learn a lot by observing what happens on the shop floor and can use this to develop subsequent machine generations."
So how did he end up working for ZEISS? As Felix recalls: "I've been passionate about analyzing optical beam paths since I was in high school. And during my apprenticeship I wanted to be close to industry. I started out as a communications electrician at Deutsche Telekom. While that was certainly industrial, it didn't really challenge me. After studying at the Ravensburg-Weingarten University of Applied Sciences, I wrote my dissertation at the Schott glassworks," he says. That's when Felix decided he wanted to work at a company that produced optics. "So I looked at what ZEISS had to offer." That was back in 2005. The people, the tasks, and the responsibility were just what I'd been looking for. "And I've now developed my skills to become a machine architect. What I love about this is the cross-discipline research and production that is done at ZEISS. And what I value are the interactions with other people here at the company. All the doors are now wide open to me: from the Technical Ladder to Project Management duties. But for the next two years I'll definitely be focusing on my AFM."