NASA, ESA, CERN, the International Atomic Energy Agency … Some prestigious names feature in Mirion Technologies’ orderbook. In 2019 the Olen-based radiation detector manufacturer has added a Factory of the Future Award to its list of references.
Thanks to Value Stream Mapping (VSM) and an innovative work management system, the firm has managed to grow steadily without taking on any extra workers. Although it is a high-tech production company, much of the work is still performed by hand.
This article appeared in Motion Control. Author: Dieter Devriendt
Companies whose customers include nuclear power plants, space agencies and scientific institutes seldom manufacture ‘off-the-shelf’ products. This also holds true for Mirion Technologies, based at Olen, in Belgium. Their radiation detectors – which detect not only radiation but also identify its type and intensity – are almost always manufactured as bespoke products, according to the customer’s wishes and specifications. For example, the company is collaborating on NASA’s Marslander Curiosity, and inspectors working for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can use Mirion detection equipment when they need to. At Fukushima too, the firm’s detectors are being used to check foodstuffs and the environment, following the catastrophe at the nuclear power plant in 2011. Both germanium-based and silicon-based detectors are manufactured at Olen.
Germanium v. silicon
Semi-conductor detectors come in a number of configurations. The way they work involves measuring ionising radiation, to a high degree of accuracy, based on the number of electrons released into the detection material. The detection material used by Mirion is either germanium or silicon.
Germanium is used in gamma spectroscopy equipment. Very pure germanium is doped (with impurities to change its properties) and then equipped with a junction and a contact (electrodes). Ionising radiation passing through the material creates small currents, which are then measured. The current measured determines the energy level of the radiation. For germanium spectroscopy to work, the detector has to be cooled with liquid nitrogen (to a level below approx. -200 °C). Otherwise, the electrons in the germanium crystalline network will move too freely and create a current, even though no radiation is present. These days, electrical cooling is also widely used. Silicon, for its part, is used to measure alpha and beta particles, and X rays. Narrow strips of silicon (around 100 micrometres wide) are doped in boron. Mirion’s silicon detectors are known as PIPS – Passivated, Implanted, Planar Silicon.
Mirion’s Belgian story began at Canberra Detectors in 1981. Canberra set up in Europe with a site in Belgium, so that it could collaborate with a specialist in very pure germanium. Two years later, a silicon detector specialist (alpha/beta spectroscopy) also became involved in the project and PIPS® detectors were created. In 1985 the company changed its name (to Canberra Semiconductor) and moved to the current site at Olen. In 2016, Canberra was sold to Mirion Technologies, whose head office is in California (USA).
Today, the Belgian site employs 46 people and has an annual turnover of 17 million euros.
Much of the product, which is made almost entirely to order, using extremely expensive materials, is manufactured by hand at Mirion Technologies in Olen. A more advanced level of automation (robots) was tried out, but did not prove viable. Consequently, especially at the workforce level, a few issues remain to be dealt with. Work planning and management are crucial to enable the company to respond relatively quickly to the needs of a demanding market. The advantage is that Mirion Technologies often works with annual contracts. Work undertaken on behalf of customers can thus be planned more efficiently.
Factory of the Future transformations
After a guided tour of Mirion Technologies’ production facility, the CEO told us more about the progress they had made in three of the seven ‘Made Different’ transformation categories.
- Human centred Organisation
Mirion Technologies embraces ICAIR values (integrity, commitment, accountability, innovation & respect). Olen’s CEO adds the ‘fun’ factor to this list: “Our employees often spend more time on our premises than they do at home… so it’s important that they like their work.” So, in collaboration with Flanders Synergy, Mirion set up an innovative work management system, with the basic processes clearly separated out from support functions on an organisation chart. A flat structure with a team-based organisation system and a high level of autonomy has been supplemented with a flexible matrix, showing each person’s roles and tasks. Any critical skills can thus be identified and training courses planned in order to fill any gaps. “Organising holiday periods, planning people’s own workload, ordering materials and negotiations with people … all of these things are discussed and executed within the teams themselves”, says Marijke Keters.
- Advanced Manufacturing Technologies
The building occupied by Mirion Technologies at Olen was substantially enlarged in 2013. This year, the firm also invested in the implanter for adding ions to silicon and germanium. In 2017, one production line was also transferred from the United States to Belgium. Belgian colleagues first travelled to the USA to observe everything in situ and as a result, the full transfer was completed in just four weeks. “We see our production facility as a marketing tool, especially now that we have successfully completed the Made Different programme with flying colours, and a Factory of the Future Award hangs proudly in our reception area.”
- Digital factory
The starting point mentioned above, which is human-centered, is emphasised with a digitalised workflow. Mirion uses paperless work orders issued via Vivaldi, where workers can find their instructions, accompanied by photo illustrations and with room for adaptations and corrections. The firm also works with a detector configurator that displays (on a 3D CAD graphic) the outcome of specifications data entered by customers; this is no easy task for a product that is heavily customised to meet specific wishes and requirements.
“Mirion Technologies Olen plans to carry on down the same path”, CEO Marijke Keters assures us. “We want to establish the Belgian factory as Mirion Technologies benchmark site at global level. That’s why we’re opting for sustainable growth, based on innovation. For example, our R&D division is supported by Vlaams Agentschap voor Innoveren en Ondernemen (VLAIO).” Mirion Olen is also collaborating with Agoria on Business Model Innovation in a new market segment. “We plan to grow our turnover significantly in this sector by 2023.” Marijke Keters concludes by quoting Zig Ziglar’s words: “There’s no elevator to success, you have to take the stairs.”