VIII. The Microscope Industry

To be profitable in the increasingly competitive world of commercial microscopy makers have to be more productive. To do this they have to design microscopesas modules. This means that a module, such as a frame, can be used by a wide range of disciplines. If a manufacturer is designing a frame they want that frame to be used in industry, research, bio-med and any place else they can sell it. To do this they must design it to take a wide range of accessory modules.

What this does for the manufacturers profitability is to bring the economics of scale to microscopes. The more frames that can be manufactured at a time the less they will cost since manufacturing set up costs will be reduced for each module produced. The key to profitability for manufacturers is modularity. The days of making one instrument at a time are, thank goodness, over.

Manufacturers don't make fluorescent or phase microscopes they make modules to add on to there frames to do these techniques. If you call a microscope representative and ask for a "phase microscope" it is admitting ignorance. The correct way to discuss a microscope with a rep. is to hit them with a stick. No, not really (well maybe just a little). What you want to say is " I want to see a bench top (or research) frame equipped for phase".

Professionals in the microscope business quit thinking in term of phase microscopes, etc, years ago. A pro today thinks in terms of the modules the manufacturer makes and how they all work together to provide the techniques the user wants.

Modern manufacturing techniques make microscope modules totally interchangeable. When you order your bright, shiny, new microscope the microscope representative goes into their warehouse and assembles your microscope by pulling parts from bins. There is no need to custom fit modules to other modules. Installing a microscope now is just a matter of opening boxes and clicking parts together. No tools needed and not a lot of brains needed either, thank goodness.

This means that when you want to add a new module for a new technique the module will fit on you instrument with no adjustment. Just snap the module on in the correct place and your in business. Installation in the commercial world is considered the simplest job around, the tough jobs are sales, training and repair.

The only drawback to all of this in some users eyes is the perceived lack of quality in modern instruments versus older instruments. As a repair person and a pro in the microscope business I'm here to tell you that it just isn't so. The older instruments can be very well made and in many cases just plain beautiful to look at but they can't compete with the best of todays microscopes.

Modern materials, lubricants and machine tools make an instrument that should last fifteen years or more as a front line instrument. Not only that but if will be able to be upgraded to a whole host of techniques that the older instruments can't be. The precision of machining on modern microscopes makes a much more accurate instrument.

A good example of this is shimming, placing thin metal washers between the objective and the nosepiece seat. This used to be common practice when installing a microscope but you should not have to shim a modern objective. If you have to then something is wrong and the manufacturer will (should) fix it under warranty. Modern interchangability means that any objective will work with on any place on the nosepiece and modules don't have to be custom fitted to each other. This used to not be true. In the old days you had to remember which objective went in which nosepiece place to make the microscope parfocal and parcentric. If you disassembled an instrument you made sure that it went back together the exact same way (say a multi-headed microscope). That isn't true of a modern products.

The optical quality of the modern microscope is better. Contrast levels are higher than ever and resolution is increasing while prices are decreasing. There are more types of optics for more applications than ever. Field of view has increased and users can realistically wear their glasses.


The microscope market place is roughly divided into the bio-med, industrial and geology markets. Although the frames may be the same across markets the optics and accessory modules change. Each market has its defining uses and sales requirement.

The bio-med market includes the student, clinical and research sub-markets. Each of these sub-markets has its own needs. In the student market the microscopes must be inexpensive and durable. In the past most student microscopes were sold with a monocular head but, thank God, that is changing. A student microscope now has a binocular head and is diffusion illuminated.

The clinical market is one of if not the biggest dollar volume markets. A clinical microscope will have a reversed nosepiece on a desk top frame. They are always binocular and Kohler illuminated. Typical accessory modules include phase or fluorescence. Nikon and Olympus dominate this market, their prices are very close together.

Bio-med research microscopes range from the high end bench top to the large frame research microscopes. Typically they will have at least one camera. It is not uncommon for a research microscope to have a TV. camera mounted on it for documentation and image analysis.

The industrial market is divided into semi-conductor, electronic and metallurgical. Semi-conductor microscopes are used to perform quality control and manufacturing procedures on semi-conductor chips. These chips are manufactured as wafers and the wafers are then cut apart. The microscopes must be able to handle up to eight inch wafers in an ultra-clean environment.

The requirements for a semi-conductor microscope are to provide an good image, allow precise control of a huge stage and keep the user from contaminating the wafer. The circuitry on a semi-conductor wafer is so small that the least little piece of dirt will destroy that chip. The user must be able to use the instrument and be productive, in a manufacturing plant time is money.

To achieve these goals manufacturers have come up with some innovative modules. The universal illuminator lets the user switch between Nomarski, dark field, bright field and fluorescence with just a push of a lever. Ergo heads let the user adjust the angle of the head to accommodate users of all heights. Wafer stages move the specimen with out scuffing it across the stage.

Semi-conductor microscopes for wafer work are equipped with reflected light modules since wafers are opaque. The objectives used span a wide range from very high performance, short working distance to medium performance ultra-long working distance objectives. Long working distance objectives are used were probes are used to test the chip. The operator controls the probes using the microscope to observe the process.

Mask microscopes are not used for Halloween but to look at the masks used in the manufacture of wafers. These are as large or larger than wafers and are transparent. A mask microscope will be equipped with a wafer stage cut out for transmitted light. Reflected light objectives are used since no cover slip is used on a mask.

Stages for a semi-conductor microscope must be large enough to accommodate the wafer being processed. Frequently these are motor driven and computer controlled. All wafer stages must be precise but the motor drive ones must be precise and repeatable. The stage must be able to go from place to place with accuracy since it is very easy to get lost with todays complex wafers.

Electronics market microscopes are used for a broad range of circuit board and hybrid chip work. These instruments range from stereo microscopes to compound microscopes equipped with lasers. These systems are much more popular and much more developed than a few years ago, look for a lot more development.

The most common microscope in this market is the stereo. It is used to look at drills that make holes in circuit boards, the holes themselves, help the user control test probes and just about everything else in the manufacturing process. Frequently the stereo will be built into some other piece of test or manufacturing equipment.

When a manufacturer buys a microscope to be used in their equipment they are referred to as the Original Equipment Manufacturer or O.E.M. for short. O.E.M.'s are beloved by microscope manufactures since they require no follow-up service. The manufacturer just delivers the microscope and leaves.

Metalurgical microscopes are used in the metals industry and in other types of materials research and quality control. It used to be that only metallurgical microscopes were used only for metals but with the explosion in materials research they have found a home in many other labs. The metallurgical microscope is usually inverted and equipped with reflected light only.

Geology microscopes always have polarization. The optics of a geology microscope will be designed from the ground up to be used in a polarizing system. Typically a geology microscope will have a rotating stage and centerable objectives.

Bio-med and geology camera systems are almost always 35mm. Bio-med users want slides to illustrate lectures, print making for poster sessions and publication. A slide is best for these purposes. Industrial people use Polaroid and increasingly video printers. In industry photos are used for quality control verification and immediate reports. Polaroid or video printers work best for this.
What this means to you

In the microscope market place there are a number of markets and sub-markets. Each one requires a different set of accessory modules however these modules will fit on most microscopes.

Manufacturers, who are all these tacky people anyway?

The manufacturer is the single most important force in the microscope business. No manufacturers, no new microscopes and one heck of a lot less fun. There are only four manufacturers that are in the top rank, these are Carl Zeiss, Leica, Nikon and Olympus.

All of these makers make excellent microscopes. The difference is in price-performance trade-ofs that only you the customer can judge. These manufacturers all produce quality goods.

Carl Zeiss and the E. Leitz component of Leica are mostly German made. They tend to be more expensive than the Japanese made Nikon and Olympus. Sometimes they are worth the extra money and sometimes not. In the bio-med market Nikon and Olympus are the real powers. In very high end research Zeiss and Leitz hold sway. This is not absolute, each maker has strengths and weakness in each area of the market place.


Since I worked for Olympus dealers for most of my work life I'll start with Olympus. A Japanese maker, Olympus makes optical equipment, pocket tape recorders and bio-med analyzers among a wide range of products. Their optical goods include microscopes and cameras. Olympus is known in the trade for rugged and elegant mechanics and excellent optics.

They are also very conservative and tend to be slow in introducing new products. Although once they decide to bring out a new line they have everything ready then, not months from now. In my experience Olympus makes very rugged microscopes though not the flashiest. Olympus tends to be strongest in the bio-med markets in America.

Olympus, Tokyo owns Olympus, USA who distributes product to the Olympus dealers. While Olympus USA has a lot of strengths they have a lot of weakness's. Their primary strength is a disciplined dealer corp and a strong pricing policy that focuses the sales effort on the product not on price competition. This should breed a technically competent sales corp.

In my experience it hasn't. The primary weakness of Olympus is its technical training. This is odd since they have as a consultant on of the best microscopist going, Mortimer Abromowitz. He's not only good he can write, in English no less. However Olympus has very spotty training for its personnel and little to no requirement for dealer personnel training.

Service is another weakness of Olympus. They don't really have an authorized service program and they have no in field service personnel. Couple this with a poor parts supply system and its a good thing that Olympus microscope break so infrequently. I wish Olympus would get a service and training program that is as good as their instruments.

The new Olympus BX line of bench top microscopes is the class of the field in the bench top area. The BX uses infinity corrected optics, very low set controls, ceramic stage tops, wide field eyepieces and a complete set of modules for all purposes. Olympus claims that they are going to continue to make their older BH series of microscopes at the same time as the BX. I find this hard to believe. The BX is better for all purposes and shouldn't be all that much more to make if any. If you like Olympus buy a BX.

The Olympus CH series student microscope is the class of the student field. While it can take a wide array of modules it is best as a binocular bright field student microscope. This microscope is the most sturdy microscope out their. It is diffusion illuminated so it is easy to use. Also it is an excellent doctors officer microscope.

In the inverted market Olympus makes two very good microscopes the small CK II and the research size IMT II. The CK II is great for routine tissue culture checks, it is simple and it works. The IMT II is an excellent choice for a research inverted. It has built in positions for a 35mm Olympus camera and a general purpose port. The frame accepts all Olympus heads so another camera can go on top.


Nikon has the widest line of microscope products in the U.S.. Besides microscopes and cameras they make wafer handling stations and pattern projectors for industry. Nikon makes modules for their frames that do just about everything. Its hard to think of a technique they don't sell a module for.

A Nikon dealer has a lot more lee way than any other dealer. Nikon wants their dealer to sell microscopes and not get into discussions about territory. While this should breed a high pressure, non-technical sales person I haven't seen any real difference between the competence of the Olympus and Nikon sales forces.

Nikon has an authorized service dealer plan and an decent parts department. While the service dealer plan is not as strict as Leica's it works. Training for factory direct personnel is adequate. There is some training for sales persons every year. Training for factory service persons appears to be excellent.

In the past Nikon's sales strength was in industry and Olympus was in bio-med. With the introduction of the Labophot II line this has changed. Nikon is strong all across the board. The Labophot II and the larger Optiphot II are excellent microscopes in the bench top arena. They both have reversed nosepieces and excellent illumination. Nikon is pioneering stainless steel and ceramic stage tops to increase stage life.

Industrialy Nikon has the most complete line going. The Epiphot metalograph is the standard of the industry. Nikon stereos are adequate and the pattern projectors are excellent. The wafer station, a microscope and a wafer handling system integrated together, was pioneered by Nikon.

Nikon's high end research upright, the AFX, doesn't have all the features of some microscopes but what it has works spectacularly well. The AFX has a built in camera system that can put an identification number on each frame. This is a real help in keeping track of a large number of photographs. The camera has ports for two 35mm cameras and one large format camera and a separate port for a tv. camera.

The Diaphot II, Nikon's research inverted, is an excellent system. It is the successor to the best selling research bio-med inverted, the Diaphot. The redesign of this classic has improved its fluorescence performance and increased its ease of use. The Diaphot was always a rugged microscope and now it is even more so. The TMS Nikon's small inverted is perfectly adequate for routine work.

Carl Zeiss

Zeiss is the oldest intact optical company and the largest producer of optical equipment in the world. The Zeiss plants produce everything from microscopes to the optics used on satellites. As specified in Dr. Ernst Abbe's will the Carl Zeiss company is owned by the non-profit Carl Zeiss Medical Foundation. This corporate arrangement has given Zeiss a longer term corporate world view than other companies.

While always been noted for uncompromising quality Zeiss has also been noted for high prices. Zeiss recently eliminated all of its dealers and now sell through a direct sales force. This has reduced prices to a large extent. How this will go in the future is any ones guess but a good price on a Zeiss microscope is always welcome.

The Zeiss company has always played an important role in the microscope industry. From the time of Dr. Abbe, first scientist and later president of Zeiss, they have been in the forefront of design and manufacturing. Their newest microscope line carries that tradition forward.

An Axioscope looks unlike any other microscope out there. It has a pyramidal frame that helps it reduce vibration and control positions that make using it a dream. Its just so easy to use! The focus, stage and transmitted light controls just slip into your hands while your hands rest comfortably on the table. Couple this with well thought out modules for every technique known to man and justly famous optics and you can see why I think that this is an excellent choice for a high end research frame in the bio-med area.

When Zeiss introduced the Axio line of microscopes they went to an infinity tube length. This improved an already excellent line of optics. However it did orphan the legion of Zeiss owners. Zeiss has been good about keeping the 160mm tube length objective in stock, how long this will continue I don't know.

I get similarly worked up about the IM series of inverteds. These are the class of the field for bio-med research inverteds. The stage is huge and rugged, stand on it if you want, not recommended but you can. The optics available for it can do anything. This is one inverted that can do the whole range of bio-med applications and do them well.

Zeiss pioneered the surgical microscope and are still the sales and technology leader. If you need moderate magnification, good resolution, long working distance and real comfort in a stereo, check out the Zeiss surgical line. They are excellent for forensic applications and applications that require a lot of dissection. The more you use these stereos the more you will appreciate them.

Service and parts at Zeiss are the best in the business. The parts department has very knowledgeable persons to help you. Since the service personnel are Zeiss employees they are very responsive and well trained. Zeiss training has always been the standard of the industry. Part of the pleasure of owning a Zeiss is knowing that real service is a phone call away.


Leica is a name you have probably heard before but not with microscopes. E. Leitz company used the Leica name for their excellent line of 35mm cameras. Leica in fact was the first 35mm camera. Now it is the product name for a whole line of products.

Leica is made up of a whole group of historically significant companies. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions that goes back into the 50's Leica is made up of Reichert, American Optical, Bausch and Lomb, Cambridge, E. Leitz and Wild. This may seem like some what of a mish-mash and it is. However this could be the defining company of this decade.

With the acquisition of American Optical (A.O.) and Bausch and Lomb (B. and L.) Leica controls the last American microscope manufacturers. While I feel uncomfortable about this these companies had deteriorated over the last 15 years. We probably will never see the B and L name again, at least on anything good. A.O. has been using the Reichert name since the sold the American Optical name years ago.

Alas the glory days of A.O. were over in the mid 70's. Corporate mismanagement and greed reduced both the great American companies to the laughing stock of the industry. The last American built compound microscope, the Reichert 410, is a hideous hunk of junk. Were the A.O. plant used to produce elegant, bullet proof microscopes they now produce a microscope so bad I can't in all good conciance recommend anyone purchase one.

However the rest of the Lieca plants produce spectacular products. Maybe we will see a reniesance of the American microscope led by the E. Leitz and Wild plant. The work force is in place at the old A.O. plant, all they need is leadership.

E. Leitz has always been know for quality. Their large frame research microscopes have been the known for superior optics since the late 1800's. There present line includes new computer controlled microscopes that will change the way we think about the research microscope. If I needed a top line, totally versatile research microscope for a wide range of uses and documentation techniques I would be very tempted by the DM (Das Mikroscop) line from Lieca. The most amazing thing about this microscope is its price. The price for all this capability is really quite low, right with Nikon. What a deal!

Wild has always produced the best stereos. If you are a serious user of stereos you need to take a look at a Wild. Of course if you are a serious stereo user you probably have a Wild. Other companies make good stereos but Wild makes the widest range of stereos with the widest range of accessory modules. They are ruggedly constructed and a delight to use.

Reichert is a company we don't see a lot of in the states except for the Reichert-Jung microtomes. Reichert, an Austrian company, for years was the research microscope producer for A.O.. With the Univar microscope they set new performance levels for research microscopes. The Polyvar research microscope has been a standard of excellence in semi-conductor research. Reichert's big winner is the Mef-3 metalograph, a do everything microscope that is easy to use, optically superb and incredibly expensive.

If this product line sounds like it overlaps, well it does. The industry is watching Leica to see how they will re-organize these talented plants to be their most productive. I would bet that over the next five years you will see a proliferation of new, innovative products that blend the talents of this world wide company.

In America they have gone a long way towards resolving overlaps and redundancies. The dealer network is strong and committed, like no other dealer group, to technical excellence. Service and support is as good or better than Zeiss and that's saying a lot.

Leica dealer service persons are the best trained and backed in the business. Parts support in the past has been spotty due to the problems of integrating all the products into one parts system. I feel certain that this will be resolved. If you have a problem with a Leica product you will get support not talk.

Other makers

The big four makers are the best known but there are other makers of microscopes. Of these the only one that makes anything worth while is Unitron. This Japanese manufacturer makes excellent inverted metallographs and a very good stereo, the ZST. However the rest of Unitron's line is poor. If you are in the market for a stereo or an inverted metalograph then check into Unitron. There prices are very good, the optics are fine and there are a lot of them out there. However there is little factory support and almost no parts.


There are a lot of microscopes out there that I haven't mentioned. That because they are junk. Usually they are an "importer trademark" microscope. This means that the importer goes the manufacturer, located God only knows were, and buys a microscope based on a low price. There is no consideration of materials choice, optics or any of the other things that make a good microscope. Bausch and Lomb is now an importer trade mark microscope. This is a real shame. The present B and L is made in China and is a blot on a great name. The persons responsible for this disgusting marketing ploy should be ashamed of themselves.

Other importer trade mark companies include Swift and the Fisher trade mark microscopes. Stay away from all of these microscopes. They aren't cheap, they perform poorly and there is no factory support. Importer trade mark vendors don't have parts or repair programs of any value. Buying these microscopes is false economy or no economy at all.

Some junk microscopes bear there own companies logo on them. Avoid them none the less. If it isn't made by Nikon, Olympus, Zeiss or Leica (with the exception of the 410) then don't buy it. Quality in a microscope comes from excellence in design and construction. These junk makers are at best copy cats who can't do it right or quick buck artists.
What this means to you

Buy only products from Nikon, Olympus, Zeiss and Leica. Unitron makes a good metalograph and stereo. Other brands should not be considered.