Improving the Workplace

The optical microscope can be found in almost every laboratory in the world. It is also the one instrument in those laboratories that causes more physical harm to its long-term users than any other. The debilitating injuries it inflicts can be eliminated by redesigning the microscope so that it can be operated from a personal computer. This paper will explore some of the compelling reasons for performing such a conversion. This paper is not about automation; it is simply about making people's jobs easier and safer.

Why Improve the Workplace?
Improving the workplace to make a job easier yields some very beneficial results -- increased profitability for the business owners and improved welfare of the employees. To accomplish this improvement requires addressing the 2 components that comprise the workplace: people and their working environment.

In order to assure profitability, a business needs to employ the best people possible in terms of attitude, aptitude and education. Success requires people who can work together to meet common goals. And, their first goal is to provide a marketable product or service for less cost than expenses. Statistically, finding the best employee requires a large pool of candidates. For example, if one selects the best from a population of 10, a good employee may be found, but if one searches a population of 10,000, the best will certainly be "world class", the best-of-the-best. To maximize the size of the pool, a business must search for the best without concern for candidates' ancestry, religious affiliation, or need for a wheel chair for personal mobility. The only concern should be to maximize the pool to increase the probability of finding the very best employee possible. When building a competitive workforce, a business must focus its attention on the abilities of the potential employee, and on nothing else.

Next we have to address the environment into which we place the employees. The creative mind requires a nurturing environment to reach its potential, and that means stress-free accommodations, such as comfortable chairs, proper lighting, clean air and appropriate tools (i.e. computers and communication equipment). All of these accommodating components can be considered "assistive technology" -- that is, they provide what the employees need in order to maximize their productivity. There are people in the pool who may require other accommodations such as more sophisticated tool interfaces. But, as for all employees, the assistive technology provided is based on their particular needs in order to maximize the benefits a business can derive from their abilities. A non-accommodating environment reduces the size of the candidate pool by excluding qualified people from competing for the job for non-job related reasons. An unnecessarily constrained candidate pool will not provide the best-of-the-best employees!

A Harmful Environment
Researcher after researcher has found that microscopists are harmed by their working conditions at an alarming rate1. One author made some recommendations to minimize the discomfort as far back as 18352, a more contemporary researcher found 80% of microscopists frequently experience significant pain3, another found an OSHA rate of 194, and yet another estimated the average career life span of microscopists at 5 to 10 years5. What researchers have found is that people who spend their day at the eyepieces of a microscope can expect strained eyes, and sore wrists, elbows, neck and back. Consequently, industries are unable to take advantage of the expertise of their most experienced workers, just as they reach their most productive level, as a direct consequence of the environment they place them in. But it doesn't have to be that way!

The Fix
This situation can be alleviated by employing the same high-tech approach to redesigning the workplace as was used to develop the business processes. A good understanding of the challenge can be achieved by reviewing the operation of the optical microscope. The user must sit in a rigid position with eyes focused on a distant image through binocular eyepieces while using his/her hands to turn the focus knob, move the sample, adjust the illumination, and change the magnification. This becomes a very challenging set of physical requirements, yet the physical operation of the microscope has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual analytical work being performed. In fact, the operation doesn't have to be physical at all. Manipulation of all of the microscope's manual controls can be accomplished using a personal computer based system and state-of-the-art motion control technology. And off- the-shelf electronic video imaging technology can be utilized to transmit the magnified image to the personal computer monitor. By fully-integrating these functions, we have a microscope operable from an office desk located outside of any exclusionary space. By employing a second personal computer and interconnecting the 2 in a host/remote configuration, the microscope can be operated from another building, or even another state.

Improving the tool-operator interface provides several advantages. First, we eliminate the constant rearrangement of work assignments which is required to minimize the time any one worker has to spend peering through the eyepieces of a microscope. Now one person can spend an entire day, every day, at a microscope. Economy of scale principles dictates an improved productivity when each person can specialize in a single activity. Second, an improved interface provides direct productivity improvement. As a result, the business has to employ fewer people to perform the same amount of work. And there is a third important advantage: those who spend all day, every day in a chair -- qualified people with mobility impairments -- are now part of the prospective employee pool. By focusing on their abilities, it becomes apparent that performing the job of a microscopist, using appropriately designed interfaces6, is truly serendipitous. A person with quadriplegia can work as productively as anyone else, and recruiting intelligent, career-minded people with limited mobility for these positions provides a new source of employees for businesses while giving some well- motivated people access to high-tech careers.

Financial Assessment
Consider the financial benefits of this approach applied to a hypothetical semiconductor wafer fabrication facility. For sake of explanation, assume a 5 day/week, 3 shift/day manufacturing facility with a total operating cost of $75/hour/employee. It will be left to the reader to alter these assumptions for their particular environment, as appropriate.

With the current state of the art in automated wafer handling, one can load and unload practically any tool without human interaction. Thus a load/unload event can be initiated and control of all of the operations of a microscope can be handled from a remote location using a host/remote personal computer hookup. Fully-integrated, computer-controlled microscopes are available for around $52,0007. Adding a remote personal computer with a 25Mbps link to control the host personal computer adds about $3,000. Consider that an employer loses the productivity of an employee for at least 60 minutes a day while the employee is entering and leaving a clean room. At the burden rate of $75/hour, this is a loss of $18,900 per year. With 3 shifts per day, the total cost of lost employee time would be $56,700 per inspection station. The cost of an integrated inspection station with remote control would be $55,000, and therefore the return on the investment is only about 1 year. Annual savings each following year would accumulate at $56,700 per year per inspection station.

More importantly, if the interface to an optical microscope can be redesigned to provide seamless remote control, then the interfaces of many other tools can also be redesigned using the appropriate technology. Multiply the annual savings of a single inspection station by the number of tools that can be operated remotely and the number quickly becomes very significant. Add the impact of removing contamination sources (people) from the cleanroom and the savings grow even larger.

A tool that is relatively difficult to use has been redesigned to allow for personal computer control. As a result, businesses can alter their facilities to move employees out of exclusionary environments, improve the efficiency of their operations, and extend their search for the employees they need to fuel their growth8 to a large and underutilized population of people. The participating enterprise will realize a return of 100% of the initial investment in approximately 12 months.

This paper has presented a model based on the application of state-of-the-art technology to redesign a production tool so that it causes no harm to its user and is accessible to people in wheel chairs. The improved interface practically eliminates the physical stress from operating a tool that has an extensive history of causing harm to its users. It reduces employee turn-over, increases productivity, and allows businesses to remove their workers from restricted access areas. And now there is a population of hundreds of thousands to draw from to find the people needed to staff the growth in mission-critical positions. Certainly, if this can be accomplished with one tool, it can be done for a host of other tools, and improve business processes and people's lives at the same time.


  1. Research & Development, June 1995, feature article -- Fabs Strain to Prevent Work- Related Injuries, Don Lassiter
  2. Treatise On Optics, Second American Edition - Philadelphia, 1835, Sir David Brewster
  3. USA Microscopy & Analysis, July 1993, Article: Applying Ergonomics to Improve Microscopy Work, Helen Haines and Lynn McAtamney.
  4. Applied Ergonomics 1991 - 22.1, 36-42 Article: Planning and Implementation of Microscope Work, M.G. Helander, E.J. Grossmith and P. Prabhu.
  5. ASCT News (American Society for Cytotechnology) Number 3, 1990 Article: The Scoop on Scopes, Roberta M Goodell, Editor.
  6. The International Academy of Cytology, Reference 25:195-196, 1981, letters to the Editor, Max Robinowitz, M.D., Gunther F. Bahr, M.D. F.I.A.C., Cecil H. Fox, Ph.D. (Armed Forces Institute of Pathology)
  7. TriTek Corp. , 5263 Stewart Road, Sumerduck, VA 22742 (540) 439-3690, (
  8. Washington Post, May 22, 1997,"In The Chips Now, But Maybe Not Later", Peter Behr

The Author
Rex Hoover is the President of the TriTek Corporation. Prior to the founding of TriTek, he spent 25 years with IBM where he held engineering and management positions in semiconductor process development and manufacturing at IBM facilities in New York and Virginia. He gained insight into the working conditions of microscopists while managing the component failure analysis laboratory in Virginia in support of a DRAM manufacturing line.

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