Bjorn Timmer’s expertise ranges from automotive sensor systems to X-ray technology.
A University of Twente alumnus, Bjorn Timmer graduated in Electrical Engineering in the year 2000. In 2004, he successfully defended his PhD research on ‘Gas sensing in Microfluidics’. After a period spent working on automotive sensor systems, he eventually ended up at Malvern Panalytical, a company specializing in material analysis instrumentation (based on techniques such as X-ray analysis). In his current role as R&D director, he is more of a manager than an electrical engineer.
During his degree programme in Electrical Engineering, Bjorn did an internship at Bosch in Germany. It was here that he first came across Automotive Sensor Chip Technology. Bosch developed this fascinating technology, and other companies made use of it. For instance, Mercedes used it in their A-class model when it was first marketed. Cars fitted with these sensors were able to corner at higher speeds, without any problems. The same technology can also be found in cameras, making them more stable, thus producing clearer images. The technology inspired Bjorn, prompting him to pursue a career in this area.
“My PhD supervisor was Albert van den Berg. After completing my PhD research, my interest in Sensors for the automotive industry and one of Professor Van den Berg’s contacts led me to Sensata Technologies”, says Bjorn. “One area I worked in was rain sensors for car windscreens. When the sensors detect raindrops, the windscreen wipers are switched on. I also worked on a really cool electrochemical project to measure car exhaust emissions. In the course of that research I cooperated with various TNO staff and with the University of Twente.” Sensata Technologies is the world’s largest manufacturer of sensors and controls, for a wide range of markets and applications. These devices are developed by a multidisciplinary team of experts from the fields of mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering. Bjorn adds that “The 2008 automotive industry crisis brought Automotive Sensor Chip Technology to a grinding halt. The research group downsized and I was transferred to another department. I finally decided to leave Sensata Technologies when I was offered a job at Malvern Panalytical.”
Malvern Panalytical’s area of expertise is material analysis instrumentation. Panalytical’s roots are in Philips Analytical. From the very beginning, the company has focused on X-ray technology, which can be used to identify the elements making up a given material, for example. This knowledge can help you check, modify and improve materials and processes. Bjorn explains that “Our clients come from various branches of industry involved in producing materials. These range from the mining industry, to the pharmaceutical industry and the metals industry, to the areas of science involved in nano research. As Research & Development Director at Malvern Panalytical, I work on highly diverse projects spanning areas of application in which X-ray technology plays an important part. Many of the applications have a direct link to society. You may recall the Chinese milk and infant formula scandal in 2008? A failure to check the quality and contents of milk powder caused thousands of babies to become ill. Our company has developed an advanced spectrometer (Epsilon 1), which uses X-rays. This is currently being used by customs officers to test products, to check that what is on the label is actually what is in the product.”
He adds that “Were you aware that, when manufacturing 1 kg of cement, 1 kg of CO2 is emitted as soon as the kilns are fired up? Our instruments provide information about materials that help companies to research ways of reducing their CO2 emissions. I have some more good examples. Have you noticed that the material cans or plastic bottles of soft drinks are made of has gradually become much thinner? This is because better quality materials have become available, so the amount of material used can be reduced, which in turn creates less waste. This was made possible through the use of X-ray instruments, which enabled the processes and materials involved to be improved. We can also measure the levels of stress generated during the manufacture of materials. Stress arises when materials are exposed to severe cold or heat, or to pressure deformation, when rolling and stamping car doors on the production line, for example. The last thing you want is for cold winter weather to warp your car door, jamming it shut.”
While still at school, Bjorn was always taking his moped apart in an effort to improve it. Household electrical devices also fell victim to his insatiable curiosity – he enjoyed taking those apart too. These days he’s into bigger things, such as tinkering with his old VW Beetle. Bjorn is a dyed-in-the-wool handyman, with a passion for engineering and technology. He explains “It was my interest in engineering and technology that led me to the University of Twente’s Open Days although, to be fair, I really liked all of the technical degree programmes I looked at. Of course, while I was there, I also got some practical experience of the Electrical Engineering programme. I remember that someone gave a demonstration of control technology. There was a machine that still lacked this technology. When it was switched on, a pendulum whipped around in random directions,” he says, waving his arms enthusiastically to illustrate his point. He continues “When control technology was used, the movements of the pendulum became controlled and manageable. That really inspired me. So the decision to opt for this programme was very easy indeed. I’ve never had cause to regret it. After graduating, I was offered an interesting PhD studentship with Albert van den Berg’s BIOS on Lab-on-a-chip group. At the end of that period, it was time for a job in industry.”
Bjorn nods, “Yes indeed, we certainly keep in touch with the University of Twente! We are cooperating with the university on several projects, also our company regularly hosts interns and PhD students. This gives them great opportunities to take a look behind the scenes at Malvern Panalytics, and to get involved in high-tech projects. We also benefit. For example the PhD students’ projects often give us interesting new insights. They develop artificial intelligence that enables machines to identify points of wear and tear in their own systems. We can then tweak this wear and tear to make better measurements and achieve more accurate results. This is truly futuristic research.