Protochips, Inc. develops analytical tools
for understanding nanoscale materials. Their in situ microscopy products
transform electron and optical microscopes from cameras into complete nanoscale
laboratories, helping advance the study of materials for the life and materials
sciences in ways that were previously not possible.
Protochips latest product, Atmosphere™, allows users to view their samples
in a controlled gas environment, providing them with the ability to see dynamic,
real-time material behaviors within the electron microscope. Protochips partnered
with North State Software to develop the user interface and control system for this
product. The system needed an intuitive, workflow-based user interface which
would allow the user to easily and safely change the sample environment, including
temperature, gas type, and gas pressure. The system also needed the ability to regulate
sample temperature while simulataneously changing environmental pressure.
“I highly recommend North State Software and Services. [Their] team has provided
our company sophisticated, professional controls and applications software that
has enabled us to meet highly aggressive product launch schedules. Their technical
ability to develop solid, scalable software is as good or better than any in their
field. However, what truly distinguishes the services they provide goes beyond their
execution to a statement of work; they are able to take broad requirements and lead
our company's product and design teams to finely detailed specifications necessary
to meet the needs of our market. We look forward to working with them in years to
-- Dan Gardiner, Director of Engineering at Protochips, Inc
Solution and Results
In the first phase of the project, North State Software and Protochips engineering
worked closely to select the control system hardware components and build a prototype
system. North State Software recommended a fieldbus based IO system to simplify
the wiring between user interface and controls hardware, which are typically not
co-located. The prototype software consisted of a simple graphical user interface
to directly control the low-level IO for the pumps, valves, pressure sensors, and
Using UML state machine diagrams and the North State Controls™/Framework™
to implement the prototype controls software made it easy to transition to the productization
phase of the project. The low-level state machines were easily integrated into higher
level processes that implemented more complex behaviors like setting up an experiment,
regulating temperature, and changing pressure. The diagrams also provided documentation
and a communication mechanism between engineers.
For the production user interface, Protochips graphic designers and product managers
worked closely with the North State team to develop meaningful graphics and a workflow
that is both intuitive and powerful. The user is guided from setup to completion
with options including automated pump and purge cycles, leak checks, and experiment
setup, all of which are completely computer controlled. The user simply inputs the
desired pressure and temperature and Atmosphere does the rest, while constantly
maintaining a stable environment monitoring pressures and temperatures for safety.
And, while on the surface it all looks simple to the user, under the covers there
is some sophisticated data processing going on to ensure the system holds a steady
temperature and is operating in a safe manner. All of this was made possible only
by partnering with the Protochip's R&D team to solve the challenges along the way.
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Copyright 2014, North State Software, LLC. All rights reserved.
Atmosphere™ is a registered trademark of Protochips, inc.