Investing In Ceramics: Ferro Moves Forward in the Electronic Materials Market
Growth and AcquisitionsIn 1999, Ferro rapidly accelerated and enhanced its activities in the electronic markets with the acquisition of the TAM Ceramics business from Cookson PLC, and with a significant expansion in manufacturing capacity and capabilities in its California operations, including the construction of a new facility in Vista, Calif. With a goal of attaining more than $500 million in annual sales in this sector by 2003, Ferro has continued to develop its business through organic growth and acquisition. Most recently, the company purchased the EMCA-Remex line of thick film materials from National Starch and Chemical Co. in December 2000.
In its Cleveland, Ohio, Electronic and Specialty Glass facility, Ferro has installed new laboratories and upgraded and expanded its melting and milling capacity for high purity powdered glass products that serve the semiconductor, electronic component and electronic packaging industry. At its New York operations, located in Penn Yan and Niagara Falls, multimillion-dollar capital investments are underway that will more than double capacity for base metal electrode (BME) and ultra low fire (ULF) ceramic dielectrics. Supply of these materials allows capacitor manufacturers to eliminate, or drastically reduce, the consumption of palladium (Pd) used in the manufacture of these ubiquitous passive components. Since palladium pricing has risen by almost an order of magnitude over the past few years, peaking at a price of $1040.00 per troy ounce in January of this year, reducing Pd use is a priority for most capacitor manufacturers. The ceramic technology that enables these cost effective alternative solutions for the capacitor industry results from extensive interdisciplinary research involving basic glass, metal and ceramic technology, and aggressive application engineering efforts.
Product InnovationsAt Vista, which is home to the Electronic Materials group’s paste, tape and binder activities, an environment has been created where marketing, research, development, engineering, production and application support work responsively and effectively to address specific customer requirements. Ceramic Industry recently visited this facility, which is located in northern San Diego county, about 45 minutes north of the city of San Diego.
The Vista facility, which occupies about 90,000 square feet and has been in operation since January 2000, serves a diverse series of end use markets, including the passive component industry, microelectronic packaging, photovoltaics, resistor networks, hybrid microelectronics and sensor products. Ferro has created focused work groups that address the needs of each of these areas.For example, a full multilayer ceramic capacitor (MLCC) build up and processing facility, housed in a Class 10,000 clean room, is available to support the MLCC market. The laboratory is used in the development of metal electrode and termination systems, which are used with the company’s dielectrics and binders to produce state-of-the-art thin layer (close to 1 micron in the laboratory) dielectric and high layer count components. Full analytical and nondestructive testing can also be performed.
With the proliferation of wireless devices, Ferro’s low temperature cofired ceramic (LTCC) technology has enjoyed a significant growth spurt. The large LTCC applications laboratory is used for customer training, applications engineering, and product and process development. Located in another Class 10,000 clean room, the equipment available replicates that used in actual production and serves as an invaluable tool in prototyping products in conjunction with customers.
The newest addition to the Vista laboratories is the photovoltaic lab. Ferro has been producing thick film materials for use in the manufacture of crystalline silicon solar cells for nearly 20 years, and the company believes that it is the western world’s largest producer of these pastes for this industry. The evidence of commitment to the continued support of this market is evident in the new equipment, including infrared furnaces, solar cell testing and advanced processing systems, recently introduced in the plant. In the photovoltaic materials field, the company is particularly excited about a new range of thermoplastic-based conductor inks for cell metallization. These materials, which eliminate the need for drying of the printed thick films, are reported to significantly increase production throughput.
In the resistor network and hybrid microelectronic laboratories, activities focus on support of customers in the telecom, automotive and high reliability markets in particular. In 2000, the company received the U.S. Navy’s “Aegis Excellence” award in recognition of its outstanding supply record over the past 15 years to the Aegis program. The “Aegis Excellence” flag flies proudly in front of the company’s building. Development in the telecom and automotive areas has also been driven by the high cost of palladium, resulting, as in the capacitor market, in products with drastically reduced contents of this expensive metal. The Ferro “thrifted” resistor system for telecom line protection and new generations of conductor materials are evidence of these efforts. The team at Vista is also clearly excited about the EMCA-Remex acquisition, which brings new resistor systems and advanced base metal conductor systems to the company’s technology portfolio.
For the sensor market, Ferro develops and markets materials for the production of micro electro mechanical sensor (MEMS) devices, as well as monolithic sensor products. Numerous industrial and academic collaborative research programs are evidently underway in this busy area.
Future InvestmentsThe production and quality operations at Vista are also impressive. Operating in a carefully planned workflow under the auspices of an ISO 9000 quality system, production lead times and manufacturing periods are minimized. Large-scale production equipment is capable of producing several hundreds of kilograms of thick film paste per day, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of binder solutions per month. The shipping department handles shipments ranging from 100 g to 10,000 kg on a daily basis.
Ferro says that there will be more investment and further development both in Vista and throughout the group. “Electronic materials is a springboard business for us,” said a company spokesman. “We intend to be the dominant supplier in the markets that we participate in, and we will make electronic materials a core business in our portfolio very soon. Acquisitions and aggressive organic growth are vital to our plans.”