Move over Ferris Bueller – Martin our Chairman has ALSO just taken a day off!

By 13th June 2023Cairn News, News, Uncategorised

....And in which he also describes his latest R&D exploits, including an unusually large filter wheel

For those of you who may not know, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is an American teen comedy film from the 1980s, in which young Mr Bueller (Matthew Broderick) does indeed take a day off, resulting in much mayhem, including the totalling of his best friend’s father’s Ferrari.    However, Mr Bueller sails through it all unscathed, to the extent that his parents don’t even suspect that he has left his bed.

 So what’s the connection with MY day off?  Well, it seems to me that my attempts to take a day off are also associated with much mayhem, although here the mayhem is caused by just going ahead with taking one, rather than what happens during the day, which I also sail through unscathed.

More of that shortly, but this little article is also an excuse to tell you what I’ve been having a day off from.  At least in my opinion this is some pretty cool stuff, but summer is now here and needs to be taken advantage of before it goes away again, so surely I can sneak out for the occasional day?  Some of this has now reached the stage where we can show it to people, including at the MMC microscopy meeting in Manchester in early July, so the following few paragraphs should provide a foretaste of that.  Plus later on there is also a “teaser” of something I’m NOT ready to talk about yet!

89North LDI

89North LDI

The first of these developments concerns our LED products.  We now have an updated version of our long-established OptoLED two-channel LED illuminator, and also a new four-channel “MultiLED” version, which works out to be nicely more economical on a “per channel” basis.  And as I’ve already blogged elsewhere  we also now have an alternative coupling system that can easily deal with four LEDs, and is significantly more compact as well as being less pricey.  We think that this approach, of supporting up to four LED wavelengths of your choice, makes much better practical sense than stuffing a box with just about every available wavelength, this being for the reason that LEDs in the orange and yellow wavelengths aren’t really bright enough to create a truly broad-spectrum light source in this way.  But such systems are available from other suppliers if you want them, and of course if other technologies are used to generate those “problem” wavelengths (as in 89north’s LDI unit that we are delighted to supply) then all will be well, albeit at a price!

The second development is actually of a rather “cheeky” product, which we are now offering mainly because we could!  Nevertheless it may turn out to have a variety of potentially useful applications, so let’s see.  It’s the newest member of what is now the Optospin filter wheel family, which began with our 25mm filter design, and was then joined by its bigger brother that takes 32mm ones.  But now, alongside those Optospin25 and Optospin32 products, we also have…. the Optospin50!

"Newest member of what is now the Optospin filter wheel family"

OptoSpin 50 with OptoSpin 25

OptoSpin 50 with OptoSpin 25

The second development is actually of a rather “cheeky” product, which we are now offering mainly because we could!  Nevertheless it may turn out to have a variety of potentially useful applications, so let’s see.  It’s the newest member of what is now the Optospin filter wheel family, which began with our 25mm filter design, and was then joined by its bigger brother that takes 32mm ones.  But now, alongside those Optospin25 and Optospin32 products, we also have…. the Optospin50!

The main point here is that at 50mm, you can start thinking about installing more than just filters.  Specifically, “50mm” here means the SM2 thread standard, which tends to be used by many lens assemblies for example.  And although the Optospin50 can be provided in the same type of compact enclosure as the 25 and 32 versions as you can see from the photo, it can also be provided in an “open chassis” form in order to allow installation of optical assemblies of arbitrary length, for example.  Also like its smaller brethren, this beast can both spin continuously and step discontinuously between its six positions, and in principle can do so relatively quickly, but we doubt whether the speed will be of so much interest at this size.  To get the fastest performance could well require a more powerful controller, whereas we think that most users are likely to take advantage of the fact that our standard controller will be plenty powerful enough in practice.

So how come that we can even offer such a product?  The answer is because of the type of motor we use, which was developed for electric model aircraft, and for which they come in a range of standard sizes.  So the Optospin25 uses what is effectively the smallest standard size, the 32 uses the next size up, and this new 50 the next size up again.  Oh dear, I can see where this may be going, but I THINK 50mm is going to be the biggest size for us!  And as for why we use this type of motor, it’s because of its compact size, high power-to-weight ratio and ideal torque versus speed characteristics for the filter wheel application, which at the end of the day is not so different from swinging a propeller.  These characteristics allow us to incorporate the motor directly in the hub of the wheel, and also allow two overlapping wheels to be incorporated within the same physical and optical space – either for inertial balancing to reduce vibration, or to simulate a single ten-position wheel without the performance disadvantages of the diameter increase that a single-wheel solution would require.

"Meanwhile I’ve been working on something else as well....."

Meanwhile I’ve been working on something else as well, of which more anon, albeit in teaser form, as amongst other reasons it’s not yet ready for any sort of public outing.  But that has been going rather well recently, which along with some potentially decent weather made me decide to take that day off.  What could possibly go wrong? Oh, lots, but I WENT ANYWAY!

Everything was looking good for last Wednesday, until an external adviser who was due to join us for a meeting on the Monday asked if it could be moved to 2pm on Wednesday instead.  “Really sorry!” I said, “But I’ve booked that day off”.  To which the reply was “OK, how about 1pm then?”  I therefore had to explain the concept of a DAY off, which was only appreciated with a certain amount of harrumphing, as apparently this was a really important matter which had already dragged on for far too long, and must now be delayed for at least another week (or actually two, as he was so busy with other commitments!).


Martin's house extension

Martin’s house extension

But there was more.  Of course there was more!  At long last we were about to ship the first batch of MultiLEDs, but on Tuesday afternoon a problem was found with its otherwise very nice timer facilities (but all fixed by the time I’m writing this!).  This was strange, as they had been debugged to death, and the recent software tweaks shouldn’t have affected them at all.  Many software problems can be quickly identified and fixed, but this looked like it was going to be one of the others.  Under such circumstances it’s best to start by having a quiet think over a cup of coffee, but reality turned out to have other plans.

As soon as I took the lid off the box, I got a message that the “wrong sort of cavity wall insulation” had been used in a building project over at my house, and so it would have to be taken out.  This would have required at least a partial demolition of what had been built (a handy tip for building inspectors everywhere: it’s much more helpful to tell people what they should be doing than what they should have done….), so sorting this one out made it even more difficult to make any progress on the software issue.  The good news was that an alternative solution was found, but this involved emails flying around every few minutes for most of the afternoon, so the software never had a chance.  I suppose I could (should?) have cancelled that day off to work on the problem instead, but meanwhile it seemed to be generating rather more heat than light, which is not so conducive to finding a cure!  It therefore struck me that to let things cool down for a day or so might be no bad thing, and by now I really DID need that day off….

So I took it after all.  The day’s planned activity was to walk from Faversham to Whitstable via the coast, and then to refresh myself at various hostelries when I got there, before catching a train back.  It’s something I like to do at least once a year if I can, and is generally combined with having lunch at the Ship Centurion in Whitstable’s High Street.  They have some very nice German beers, and usually with some German style food to match, but sadly not on that day so I just had to content myself with a quick pint of Benediktiner Weissbier before heading over to The Smack for food and more beer there, and then to the Handsome Sam micropub for a final pint before the return train (followed by an even more final pint at Faversham’s Furlongs micropub….). 

Whitstable still isn’t a bad sort of place in spite of having been invaded in recent decades by “DFL”  (Down From London as they are locally called) people, but for me the main drawback compared with Faversham is that they’ve not managed to pedestrianise the place, so their main street is busy with both cars and people.  That’s where The Smack scores over the other two, as unlike them it’s on a nice quiet side street.  Their food was also annoyingly good, which means that I might even eat there by preference on future trips, even though I like the Ship Centurion so much.  (Other Whitstable pubs are available, but I’m not mentioning them here because I didn’t go to any of them that day.  So there!)

But all this talk about pubs reminds me that in the old days before we moved to the farm we all used to go to such places quite often as a group, but sadly not any more.  There are all sorts of reasons for this, starting with the fact that there is no longer anywhere within sensible walking distance, but we are also now a rather more mature organisation (in both senses of the word), and I do rather feel that something has been lost.  In those younger headier days of the 1990s, our lunchtime get-togethers effectively took the  place of more formal meetings, whereas nowadays everyone sits in their office doing Zoom or Teams calls all day.  Of course it’s been great to be able to talk to people remotely in this way, especially during Covid, but in the old days we’d tended to see each other face-to-face rather more, which at least in my opinion was more productive as well as more enjoyable!

So to pry a few of us away from computer screens occasionally, I’ve recently introduced “Friday cakes”, where those of us involved in R&D can chat about our activities to anyone who cares to come along.  We’re still a pretty sociable place, so these cakes are in competition with all the ones that keep turning up in the kitchen for one reason or another (wow, another birthday!), but to eat THESE cakes you have to come and chat, as any remnants then go over to my house for the weekend!  I think it’s beginning to work.

This all gets right to the heart of where I want Cairn to continue to be.  Because we have always made a point of not having any outside investors, creditors or shareholders, and also we’ve always had a policy of owning our own premises, our overheads have always been that much lower.  And since we are now employee owned it’s going to stay that way!  One particularly beneficial result is that we can develop new products much more economically than most other organisations seem to be able to do, because just about anything we need by way of facilities is already there and paid for.  In fact we seem to have developed a nice sideline developing products for other Companies, but me being me, I’d much rather develop new products for US!  So this is what I personally try to do when I’m not involved in any of all those meetings, whether virtual or real (yes I’m afraid they ARE important, but please let’s try to keep them SHORT!).

Other project?

Which finally brings me to that “other project” I mentioned earlier, although I’m still not going to tell you exactly what it is!  The reason for that isn’t one of secrecy though, as I’ve already protected it by filing a preliminary patent, but rather because it’s in what has turned out to be in a rather competitive product area, and I don’t yet know how well it will stack up against all the competition.  Actually I HATE being overtly competitive, as I think it encourages you to just do the same thing as everybody else, although hopefully rather better.  One fact I have learned over the years is that however good you are at something, there will be other people out there who are even better at it, which is kind of unsatisfying.  In any case you don’t NEED to be the best – just good enough to do the job. 

So how can you get what I call an “edge” over the competition, when in practice everyone is likely to be good enough?  Why, try to do it differently of course!  Needless to say, this approach has its risks, as the result may not work so well, but there is ALSO a chance that it will work rather better! I think that has turned out to be the case for our choice of motors in the Optospins, but I’m still not sure which way this one is going to be. And equally obviously (I hope!) you can better afford to take the risk if your overheads are that much lower, as ours are.  So we’ll have to see whether or not this one pays off, but the preliminary patent search has suggested that the approach may indeed be a rather novel one.  And as I mentioned nearer the start of this piece, some apparently anomalous results that I’d been getting turned out to be exactly as they should have been, so if THAT’S not an excuse for a day off, then I don’t know what is!