Q&A with David Henderson: On Developing Precise Closed-Loop Positioning Solutions

August 13, 2018 | 17:04
Since 2002, David Henderson has been focused on developing small precision motion technologies that are lower power and less expensive than other products on the market. Today, his company, New Scale Technologies, is pursuing solutions for a wide range of applications, including laboratory automation systems and collaborative robots.
David Henderson

C. J. Abate: Tell us a bit about your background as an engineer.

David Henderson: I am a Mechanical Engineer with an MBA. My engineering work includes many new product designs as well as inventions that produced more than 15 US patents. My system expertise includes actuators, motion control, mechatronic systems, and robotics.

C. J.: What inspired you to launch New Scale Technologies in 2002?

David: I started the company with the goal of providing “Miniature Precision.” I wanted to create a mechatronics team that improves existing precision motion technologies by making them smaller, lower power, and less expensive. Much of the inspiration came from the needs of the optics industry and the tiny devices being created for imaging and optical fiber communications. A question I like to ask photonics engineers: “Photons are really small, why are your optics so big?” Many times, the reason is the legacy or larger optomechanical and motion systems. In general, motion system miniaturization has not kept pace with optoelectronics. One exception is the incredible performance and small size of your smart phone camera with embedded focus and hand shake correction. I think all mechatronic engineers should be inspired by these products.

C. J.: Tell us about the Squiggle motor. Can you give us a summary of the story behind the Squiggle motor patent? Did you initially set out to solve a customer’s problem that required a mini, reduced-voltage motor?

David: In the 1990s, the commercial potential for making tiny motors, powered by piezoelectric generated ultrasonic vibrations, was emerging. The Squiggle motor uses ultrasonic vibrations that are “wrapped” around a screw to increase force and reduce speed. The result was a very small ultrasonic motor with comparably higher force and better precision. In 2003, our first Squiggle motor was about 12 mm diameter and required hundreds of volts. The drive electronics were the size of a paperback book. By 2008, we had reduced the Squiggle motor size to 1.8 × 1.8 mm and the voltage to 3 V. Even more dramatically, the drive electronics were reduced to a single ASIC.

C. J.: When New Scale announced the SQL-1.5 piezoelectric motor in 2007, the typical applications that you mentioned for the product were phone cameras and medical devices. Tell us about some of the products in which it has been implemented since 2007.

David: We started pursuing mobile phone cameras in 2005 and were very close to adoption by 2010. However, by 2012, nearly all camera phones used voice coil motors (VCM) for focus. The key reasons were lower price and shifting system specifications that favored VCMs. By 2012, we had “pivoted” the company to medical, industrial, aerospace, and defense markets. Our core products today are micro-mechatronic modules (M3) that provide embedded rotary and linear motion is the smallest and most demanding applications (Figure 1).
Figure 1: M3 block diagram
C. J.: Tell us about your M3 “all-in-one” smart modules. In addition to the Squiggle micro motor, what’s inside?

David: Our essential message is: “Embedded motion makes great products smaller” (Figure 2). All M3 modules integrate a tiny piezoelectric SQUIGGLE or UTAF motor, drive electronics, position sensor, precision mechanisms, and microprocessor with embedded closed-loop firmware. Customers only need to provide 3- to 6-V DC power and serial digital commands. The unique value of our M3 motion modules is the elimination of separate electronics. This is a paradigm shift for our markets. Prospective customers do not expect an embedded solution and many look under the table for the “hidden” electronics. Communicating the unique value of our all-in-one systems our biggest marketing challenge.
Figure 2: M3-LS-3.4-15 Linear Smart Stages
in two-axis (XY) configuration
C. J.: New Scale offers custom engineering services. Can you share some details about one or two recent projects?

David: We engage many customers that need small motion modules with unique specifications. This development work is completed as a customer funded project with the potential to become a regularly manufacture product. 

A recent project created completely new two-axis beam steering module that uses two rotating mirrors on orthogonal axes. The beam range is ±40° and the closed-loop position resolution is 0.05°. The module thickness was only 6 mm and can fit inside the display of a laptop computer.

Another project created an improved version of the M3-F Focus Module. The new M3-FS focus module has the same external dimensions with upgrades that include:
  • The lens diameter increases from 12 to 16 mm
  • The pin-bushing bearing guide is replaced with zero clearance higher precision ball bearings to reduce lens tilt.
  • The polymer housing and carriage are machined and black anodized aluminum.

C. J.: Are any of your customers using your motors and motion systems in interesting ways? Perhaps a company that has used your product in a novel way that you didn't anticipate when you launched the company?

David: Many researchers purchase our M3 developer’s kits and pursue very creative ideas. One group uses our Squiggle motors to make a Braille display that is an array of pins that move up and down. The small size and off-power hold of Squiggle motors enabled this demonstration.

C. J.: What's next for New Scale Technology?

David: We are pursuing system solutions for end-users in Laboratory Automation and Industrial Automation markets. In laboratory automation, our Multi-Probe Manipulators (MPM) are used by neuroscientists to position micromachined silicon probes for acute recording in mouse brains. Fifteen or more M3 stages are integrated in a very small system that quickly and accurately positions the probes and increases the quality and quantity of electrical data.

In industrial automation, we just introduced a new precision smart gripper for collaborative robots.◦Under the New Scale Robotics (NSR) brand, we have launched the NSR-PG, Precision Parallel Gripper. This gripper plugs-and-plays with the Universal Robots (UR) robots in less than 30 minutes. This gripper is an all-in-one mechatronic system with URCaps software that enables the customer to “teach” the gripper using the same application as the robot.
You can read the entire interview in Elektor Business 5/2018, which is slated for publication in September 2018.
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