AFM Vendors: who acquired whom?

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It has become a bit challenging to keep track of AFM vendors over the last few years as there have been a number of acquisitions involving some of the main players.  At last count, there have been at least 26 AFM companies since the founding of this field. This almost 1 new AFM company for every year that AFM has been around!  Whew.

The field of commercial AFMs started in the late 1980’s where the main players in the US were Digital Instruments and Park Scientific Instruments.  Digital Instruments (DI) was started in ~1987 by Professor Virgil Elings, a physics professor at UCSB, while he was on a sabbatical leave; DI’s first product was the analogue Nanoscope I STM (the digital version came out a year later in the form of Nanoscope II).  Park Scientific Instruments was started in 1988 by Dr. Sang-il Park and Sung Park (not related) who had previously worked with Prof. Cal Quate from Stanford, one of the authors on the pioneering AFM paper.   Very shortly after, Japan’s Seiko Instruments began manufacturing their own AFM as well.

Early days of AFM:  Digital Instruments Nanoscope II

Each of these pioneering companies has gone through several transition over the years.  In 1998, Veeco purchased Digital Instruments (to the tune of ~$150 million!).   Veeco is an American manufacturing company of processing equipment for the semiconductor industry, so getting into the AFM business back then made a lot of sense since AFMs were important tools for quality control in that field.  

What happened to Park Scientific?  It was acquired by Thermo Electron in 1998, at which point Dr. Park returned to Korea and started another AFM company PSIA (today called Park Systems.  Right around that time, Thermo Electron also bought another AFM company called Topometrix.  Thermo Electron merged everything together into a single company called ThermoMicroscopes, which 3 years later in 2001 was acquired by, you guessed it, Veeco.   So Veeco now had acquired two AFM instrumentation companies.  We’ll come back to Veeco in a minute….

What happened to Seiko Instruments?  They manufactured an outstanding AFM but were eventually acquired by Hitachi, who now sells an updated version of this instrument. 

So now back to Veeco…at the time that Veeco bought Digital Instruments (DI), some of DI’s scientists split off to form their own AFM company called Asylum Research, which just celebrated its 20 year anniversary!  But even Asylum Research was not immune to the acquisition culture as in 2012, it was acquired by Oxford Instruments.  It is now formally called Asylum Research, Oxford Instruments.

And what happened to Veeco?  It’s still alive and well. But in 2010 it sold its AFM business to instrumentation company Bruker, which still owns the AFM business.

That was just the story of the first 2 AFM companies. There have been other branches to the AFM vendor tree.  Stuart Lindsay of Arizona State University started an AFM company called Molecular Imaging in 1993, which manufactured the best AFM with an environmental chamber and electrochemical cell.   In 2005, Agilent acquired Molecular Imaging (Agilent later turned into Keysight Technologies.)  I’m disappointed to report that recently Keysight has ended their AFM business; the Molecular Imaging AFM was a real pioneer for any environmental work!  AFMWorkshop was also started in 2009 by AFM pioneer Paul West (who also founded Topometrix) and continues to thrive.  

Leaving the US there has been quite a bit of activity in AFM instrumentation development abroad as well.   Nanosurf, a Swiss company, was founded in 1997, and today manufactures a variety of AFM’s for different applications.  In Germany, JPK Instruments (named for founders Torsten Jahnke, Franz Pelzer, and Jorn Kamps) was founded in 1999 where there specialty was biological measurements.  In 2018, JPK was acquired by….Bruker.   There are currently major AFM manufacturers in Japan, Korea, Russia, Israel, Turkey, Germany, Switzerland, and the US (and I’m sure the list is growing).

This is not an exhaustive history of AFM companies.  It’s just meant to provide a flavor of some of the history of this amazing commercial instrument. If you would like to read more about the heady, initial days in this field, I recommend “Instrumental Community” by Cyrus Mody (MIT Press)

Many thanks to Paul West and Eric Rufe for helping me dig up the history of AFM vendors!


Dalia Yablon







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