During the AMOLF Open Day, there was a long queue of children at a device with a table tennis ball. A pen hung in the air with a ping-pong ball rotating around it. On the computer, the children could enter a name or logo that the pen then wrote on the ball. The children happily waited half an hour for their personalised ball.
The device for the Open Day was a Stuart platform, a recent masterpiece realised by the three technical support departments of AMOLF: Software, Electronics and Mechanical Engineering. The departments work together, often with the workshop as well, on overarching projects or issues. Kruining explains how the idea for the device arose: 'Researchers kept using different drivers for stepper motors in their experiments, for example, to move a sample, and each time the Software Department had to write new software for these. We then came up with a stepper motor controller, an intermediary box. That instantly proved to be popular.' Kruining subsequently thought it would be more attractive to replace the controller with a robot that had more functions. Together with the drawing office and software colleagues he developed the Stuart platform, which with six arms and six degrees of freedom can make not just X, Y and Z movements but can also tilt over X, Y and Z. Researchers can use the robot to position a sample in a laser beam, for example. Kruining: 'The mathematics behind the Stuart platform is also interesting for subsequent projects.'
Quality is leading
When the electrical engineer from Amstelveen was still working for a company that produced direct current networks, he had not even heard of AMOLF. But since his first day of working at the institute, Kruining has been fascinated by the diversity of AMOLF research and the work at Electronics Engineering: 'One moment you are busy with lasers and next you are working with microscopes at the nanometre scale.’ Always extreme and pushing the limits. 'We always try to realise what the researchers need. Within AMOLF, quality plays a leading role, and not everything has to be ready for the market yesterday, as was the case at my previous employer.'
The principle behind the request
Researchers come to the department and ask us whether we can create a product for their experiment. That varies from a board with five switches to an elaborate setup in which piezoelectric elements (that convert electrical energy into mechanical movements) must move with the phase shift of a tuning fork and make contact with a surface with nanometre precision. Usually, the researchers have already carefully considered how something needs to be realised. Then the art is to determine the principle behind the request so that the researcher receives optimum support, says Kruining. 'Sometimes a different device works better than the initial idea.' He observes that the colleagues from Electronics Engineering are without exception good in their field of expertise and possess excellent communication skills. 'Which is not something that can be taken for granted', he laughs.
In addition to managing the department, Kruining develops technical products on request. He has an affinity for the techniques of Soft Robotics, one of the twelve research groups within AMOLF: 'The researchers do a lot with 3D printers. Design and 3D printing is also my hobby at home.' For Soft Robotics he recently developed a kind of worm, ten linked segments of 7 by 4.5 centimetres with small bellows in between. Each segment contains a circuit board that reads out the pumps and sensors of the segment to control the worm's movements. Kruining: 'The research focuses on the translation of algorithms. If you chop a real worm in two, both parts continue to move independently of each other. The idea was that this artificial worm should be able to do the same.'
Kruining praises the constructive atmosphere at AMOLF: 'Everybody does his or her best to get things done together. The organisation is pleasantly non-hierarchal. We all confer with each other, and every newcomer is introduced to all colleagues.' Nevertheless, he still has to get used to the fact that in his department all decisions are discussed in depth, whereas he was used to taking decisions faster. Kruining: 'I have a constant drive towards more efficiency, but I also very clearly see how much we need each other. Electrical engineering has many specialisms. At Eindhoven University of Technology alone there are 21 different majors. It is impossible for any single person to master all of those areas of expertise fully.' He notes that the work of Electronics Engineering is changing. Previously a set up was developed from scratch, whereas now it is often more attractive to purchase a piece of equipment and to modify this. Kruining: 'PhDs can purchase many modules that they can then experiment with. Chips are becoming more complex and the work increasingly more digital. This development is affecting us because the requests we receive are changing.' Yet there is still space for out-of-the-box initiatives such as the Stuart platform. Kruining grins: 'At AMOLF we are used to achieving things in a short space of time. The day before the Open Day we changed the arms of the Stuart platform because they did not function smoothly. That is how seriously we take quality.'
About Dico Kruining
Dico Kruining (34) studied electrical engineering at TH Rijswijk (now part of The Hague University of Applied Sciences). He was manager R&D at Direct Current, a developer and supplier of direct current networks. He is now working on an Executive MBA. ‘Although I would not go so far as to say that the department is a testbed, it does enable me to test theories in practice.’
AMOLF has more than one hundred, mainly young, researchers at the Science Park in Amsterdam who work on fundamental, physics-oriented research within four themes: Nanophotonics, Nanophotovoltaics, Designer Matter, and Living Matter. A total of 221 employees work at the institute.
Newsletter Inside NWO-I November 2018