A polished spin-out: Zeeko

1 November 2011

Zeeko

When it comes to polishing precision optical surfaces – the smoother and more accurate, the better the performance. That’s where Zeeko comes in. The UCL spin-out uses ground-breaking intelligent robotic polishing technology to create ultra-precision machines with extensive applications, from healthcare to space exploration.

The technology

The polishing technology uses spinning tools covered with a polishing pad made from cloth or polyurethane. A computer-controlled robotic arm is programmed to accurately adjust the position, speed and pressure of the polishing head. These Intelligent Robotic Polishers (IRPs) can produce ultra-smooth and nanometre accurate surfaces on almost any material, from traditional optic materials like glass to stainless steel and tungsten carbide.

From a modest start...

Professor David Walker, Research Director of Zeeko, began his UCL research into optical surfaces in the late 1980s. But it wasn’t until 2000 that Zeeko was born, and it was from humble beginnings.

The company hired a corner of a factory and employed three key staff. With this lean operation, the first polisher was built and initially rented to a company in North Wales as a ‘try before you buy’. It was then sold to the same company, who were a manufacturer of an array of innovative photonic devices. From that first sale, the business took off. Zeeko now produces machines capable of polishing objects from 5mm to 2.5m in size.

The research arm of the company, Zeeko Research Ltd is based in North Wales, with close links to Glyndwr University as well as roots at UCL. Machine design and manufacture facilities is based in Leicestershire.

To the edge of the universe

One of Zeeko’s largest machines is being used for a most exciting contract: the fabrication of the prototype primary segments for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). When completed this will be the largest telescope in the world, capable of observing planets around other stars and the first objects in the Universe.

Prof Walker said, “We’ve won a 5 million Euro contract to produce seven prototype mirror segments for the E-ELT. The telescope will need 1148 mirror segments – so there’s scope for a massive investment in Zeeko if the prototypes deliver. It’s an exciting time for us.”

New applications

Zeeko is constantly extending the reach of its technology. A recent development was the application of the robotic polishers to the production of prosthetic knee and hip joints.

The main advantage of Zeeko’s technology, according to Prof Walker, is that the robotic method is more deterministic. He added that, “Alternative processes are unable to control the geometry of the joints to the same high precision as Zeeko. The joint manufacturers have been able to exploit this precision and have designed higher performance joints providing significantly increased life. This translates into direct benefit for patients.”

Student gains

UCL students are associated in various ways with Zeeko’s research programme, being involved in CAD design, computer modelling, prototype build and laboratory experimentation.

Prof Walker said, “At Zeeko, we’re very much into the applied world. Students are always looking towards getting a job at the end of their studies – and with us they learn about real world applications as well as the theoretical side.”

So students and business alike enjoy the advantages of cutting edge research delivering real-world benefit.