Over the past quarter of a century Angstrom Engineering of Kitchener, Ontario has consistently built upon its sound international reputation as a global leader in the specialized manufacturing of vacuum solutions for thin-film applications, with its core business being thin-film coating. PVD (physical vapor deposition), CVD (chemical vapor deposition), and other vacuum systems created by Angstrom Engineering offer a wide variety of applications for thin film deposition technology. There are several ways to accomplish that task and there are several ways to view what is a thin film and what is not.
“There’s not really a distinct boundary, whether it’s anything sub-micron or anything sub 10 microns. Many of those applications require vacuum technology to create those thin films,” says Angstrom Engineering co-owner and Vice President, Business Development, Andrew Campbell. A vacuum chamber is used prevent any gas or dust to get in the way of the final product. It’s crucial to have a pure film product put onto a piece of glass, plastic, silicon or other component.
The company was originally founded in 1992 by Andrew Bass, who has since retired but still lives in the Kitchener area after selling Angstrom Engineering to Campbell and his business partner David Pitts.
From its inception until 1999, Bass essentially worked alone and established a solid reputation in what was then a very niche market. The specialty tech sector that Bass was supporting was the application of OLEDs (Organic Light Emitting Diodes), which is a flat-light emitting technology, made by placing a series of organic thin films – usually carbon based – between two conductors. The films light up when electric current is applied. OLEDs are often used in the manufacture of display and lighting panels. OLED displays are thinner, more efficient than traditional LCD displays, and it’s acknowledged that they offer superior image quality. OLEDs are now quite substantial in the commercial market, but that was certainly not the case when Bass launched the company.
“Back then it was really just happening at the research labs of academic institutes and some key material science organizations that were looking into these light-emitting organic compounds,” Campbell tells us.
As proof Bass was on the right track, he landed a project with Princeton University and built an entire system for the school on OLED research, which turned out to be a key launching point for Angstrom Engineering.
“That customer was very successful in the field and graduated many successful PhD students who in turn went on to do their own start-ups or joined other academic institutes and bought Angstrom Engineering tools for their continued work,” Campbell notes. “We grew geographically way faster than a business should grow.”
It wasn’t long before Angstrom Engineering was fielding calls from as many as 50 different countries, which is to be expected given the company’s outstanding track record as an innovative leader in the academic community. The whole essence of research and academia is rooted in collaboration across geographic borders.
“We’ve been able to keep our customers happy and slowly but surely we would get more opportunities,” Campbell says. By 2001 there were six employees and now there are 38 due to the rapid expansion and success of Angstrom Engineering.
The primary objective of thin-film deposition is to create an extremely thin film or a controlled film or layer of material on the surface of a component. It’s a technology that is now used virtually everywhere and is so common that it even took Campbell by surprise when he first began working in the industry. The process is used in a wide variety of applications and provides innumerable benefits. Some of the more notable uses of thin film are on semi-conductors, computer chips and transistors; essentially most everything involving electronics.
Another application that is extremely important is the optical coatings, such as those on optical lenses – anti-reflective, anti-glare and anti-scratch with different filters. Those eyewear solutions are all done using the same method and account for a very large, significant market.
Despite an already impressive technological base in which the foundation remains fundamentally unchanged, Campbell says the product base continues to evolve and improve with each passing day. As an example, a system from 2001 compared with one today is differentiated by the computer control of the machine. Machines in the 1990s and early 2000s were equipped with multiple switches and lights. Now it’s a matter of sitting in front of a computer and an LCD monitor with a system running on a Windows platform.
“When people sit in front of one of our machines it’s just another piece of software to learn, but it’s not overwhelming or daunting. It’s quite straightforward,” Campbell remarks.
The preciseness of the films being created has been enhanced thanks to the advancements in technology and the applications demanding an increased level of control are also emerging.
“Someone might want to coat a silicon wafer in gold and the precision isn’t necessarily what we would consider high today, but applications in solar and OLEDs are extremely precise. Just a couple of atoms out of place would impact efficiency,” Campbell reveals.
In addition to the marketing, administration and financial management side of the business, Campbell and Pitts have assembled a highly-skilled technological team, which is able to build these state-of-the-art machines for clients.
Skillsets within the company include tool and die machine builders, an electrical wiring team to wire up the systems and a test engineering team, which focuses on the performance of the machines and the connection to the customer’s application. Chemistry also weighs heavily into the products and services as well. As for Campbell, his background is in mechanical engineering.
A large percentage of Angstrom’s customers tend to be directly involved in the sciences or nanotechnology, so it’s necessary for the employees to have degrees in nanotechnology. The University of Waterloo, which is just down the road, pioneered a program in that field so the human resources are available. Nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick; a single gold atom is about a third of a nanometer in diameter, which provides a better idea as to just how precise these measurements must be.
In recent years lighting systems have moved more towards this technology as well.
“You’re no longer burning a filament or heating a gas, there is now solid state lighting and organic LED lighting. Some components are thin film and some of the designs people are working on are entirely thin-film devices,” Campbell says.
New OLED television monitors and some smartphones use this technology. Samsung for example, uses OLED displays. It’s a PVD created thin-film display.
“Those OLEDs are layers of materials that are evaporated inside a vacuum chamber, condensed on the surface, controlled precisely to create pixel by pixel and be able to drive those pixels. All of that is done in this type of equipment,” Campbell says.
Angstrom Engineering creates a vacuum environment where virtually nothing is inside. Staff heat their crucible of boiling material, usually with electricity. Upon heating there is measuring with different sensors the rate at which they’re boiling off that material, which will land everywhere on the surface. It’s that technology that allows for the evenly coated component to emerge. Excellent product design and top-quality component selection greatly enhances efficiencies and immensely cuts down on servicing costs.
“It’s like if you were boiling water on a stove. You see the steam come up and if you put a lid above it, you’ll see it condense on the surface and water droplets will form. We’re doing the exact same thing except we’re doing it with metals, ceramics and organic compounds,” Campbell explains. “And we’re doing it in a vacuum environment so we don’t have air or anything else to get in the way of the process.”
The result is that the material will evaporate and there will be a component above the crucible material and when the molecule is boiled off it will condense on the surface of the part. From there, atom by atom a film begins to grow. With various sensors and moving the part through the chamber the team at Angstrom is able to determine when to halt the process after the part has been evenly coated.
From a global perspective, Angstrom Engineering has more than 100 competitors, so the industry is not nearly as niche as it may appear to those on the outside looking in. By serving core markets such as optics, energy storage or semi-conductors, each are massive in their own right, and all are in need of this type of equipment to further develop their own products and services.
Angstrom Engineering has cultivated an excellent reputation within the industry and has attracted clients from every continent with the exception of Antarctica. At its core the company always has a targeted focus of making machines for people involved in research. The company does manufacture machines for people who are producing parts that have a fixed process and are running production on the machine for their components, but the focus at Angstrom has always been rooted in research. It’s a business plan that has always worked well.
“It means the machine can be more flexible from a process standpoint and the user can program the machine whereas a production machine is more focused on high throughput and maintainability and how easy it is to clean and keep it up and running,” Campbell says.
Angstrom Engineering has been incredibly successful in expanding its brand recognition and its brand applications in many countries in the world. The company cut its teeth in the semi-conductor and organic electronics applications but in the last five years there has been a conscious effort to expand further into optical applications, which has resulted in a number of exciting projects in precision optics. There are also a number of increasing opportunities with renewable energy, flat-panel displays and photonics to name just a few.
Universities top the list of educational clients while on the commercial side many customers tend to come for the material sciences, including internationally recognized enterprises such as Dow and DuPont. Angstrom Engineering has done considerable work with educational institutions here in Canada including the University of Toronto, University of Guelph, McGill, McMaster and the University of British Columbia, to name just a few.
“The machines are expensive. To do work in this field it’s very expensive for a researcher to set up a lab in nanoelectronics. It is millions of dollars to set up equipment for a lab. There’s lots of academic work in this field, which is exciting. There is also a lot of national government lab work,” Campbell says.
On the commercial side companies such as Samsung, LG and General Motors are using thin films in many of their best-selling core products. The equipment for those commercial companies may be for production but also for research and development as they look to improve upon their product base and expand their public market share.
The last 10 years has resulted in a considerable amount of time and effort being spent on research and development into commercializing OLED displays, which can now be found in many different types of mobile electronics. Campbell says there is still room for advancements, but it’s now at a very mature technological stage from a science and development perspective.
“Solar cells are emerging as a well-funded area,” he mentions. “Some of those solar cells are being made with thin-film technology. “It’s likely going to become a mature technology sooner than later. I see a lot of work in those areas in the next 10 years, but there will come a point where the work drops off. When products become commercialized there is usually some level of dip into global research into that product.”
OLEDs are being used in colour displays but Campbell says there is a lot of work that goes into making good quality white OLEDs so that they can be used in lighting applications. Many homes and businesses have gone through the transition between incandescent to florescent to solid state LED, with organic LED likely to become more popularized in the not too distant future as opposed to the semi-conductor, metallic LEDs.
“The goal is to make the products less expensive and more durable as well to produce better controllable lighting,” he says. “There are great benefits to making an organic LED light with a potential to make those on flexible sheets of plastic and you’d be able to make them using a web-coating process, which would help both production and the creative applications.”
Thin-film batteries and energy storage is also becoming an interesting market according to Campbell. He believes it could be quite significant over the next 10 to 20 years.
“As the technology emerges, we want to be a key player. We want to be a company that is known. As example, when somebody wants to do work in thin-film batteries we want to be at the top of their list. We also always want to listen to our customers. It’s incredibly valuable to foster close relationships.”
Angstrom Engineering has engaged in numerous joint research projects with its customers. Being intimately involved in such a manner allows the company to see the customer’s applications develop while working with Angstrom’s equipment, which in turn helps them to engineer better machines and devise solutions based on where the technology needs to move in the future. Products requiring thin film are now appearing at a faster rate than ever before. In addition to the traditional customers there are a number of burgeoning opportunities in the medical field as well. Robust working relationships that have been suitably fashioned with current customers inevitably leads to positive referencing down the road.
Angstrom Engineering has always been a customer-focused engineering organization and it’s a path Campbell plans to continue to follow. Building upon those relationships has given the company invaluable market insights for serving a vast array of customers, and the opportunities continue to expand.
“We’ve been able to stick to our commitment of keeping our customers happy and it’s paid off for us,” Campbell says. “Happy customers create more customers.”