Poised for Production
New process for applying thin film coatings
By T.J. Becker
In Andrew Hunt's world, being thin-skinned is no handicap. In fact, it gives his company a competitive edge.
photo by Stanley Leary While studying for his Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at Georgia Tech, Dr. Andrew Hunt developed a new process for applying thin film coatings. His technology allows thin films to be applied in the open air, which dramatically reduces costs and pushes the envelope on product applications. Here, copper foil is coated with material for electronic usage.
While studying for his Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at Georgia Tech, Hunt developed a new process for applying thin film coatings. His technology allows thin films to be applied in the open air, which dramatically reduces costs and pushes the envelope on product applications.
Obtaining an exclusive worldwide license from the Georgia Tech Research Corporation to commercialize this process, Hunt launched MicroCoating Technologies (MCT) in 1993 and joined the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), Georgia Tech's business incubator for high-tech start-ups. Graduating from ATDC in June 1997, MCT is on a fast track and ranks among the incubator's brightest stars.
Growth has accelerated in recent months as MCT evolves from the research and development stage and approaches mass production.
In 1998, MCT increased its staff from 12 to 40 employees. On the fiscal front, MCT's revenues have doubled every year since 1994, and Hunt anticipates this will continue during the next five years. Perhaps even more remarkable than its consistent black ink is that MCT's growth has been achieved without venture capital rare for a high-tech start up.
The primary source of MCT revenues has been public sector funding from Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants until 1997 when about half of revenues came from the private sector. "The shift reflects the fact that we're getting closer to product," Hunt says.
Lighter, Faster, Cheaper
The idea behind thin film coatings is a simple one cover the surface of an object to give it special properties, such as electrical conductivity, without making the entire object from the coating material.
"I like to think of coatings as alchemy," Hunt says. "You can take a plastic object and add a metal coating so that it looks like a chunk of gold." A steel object can be coated so it behaves like stainless steel, but costs less. Glass can be treated so it blocks light and reduces heat coming into a building.
Thin films result from vapor deposition taking a material and heating it until gases are emitted. The physical properties of the material change, and the gas turns into a solid, forming the coating. Typically, such coatings are put down inside reaction furnaces or vacuum chambers, which is costly and limited to smaller objects. Yet with Hunt's patented technology, combustion chemical vapor deposition (CCVD), coatings are applied in the open atmosphere, using a flame as the energy source. This flexible technology opens up thin film coatings to a whole new arena of applications.
"Size is no object," Hunt says. With the CCVD process, protective coatings can be deposited on something as large as a ship or an aircraft.
The technology also allows a wider spectrum of materials to be used as coatings, which also lowers costs. "We can deposit very complex mixtures of materials because we use a single liquid solution rather than having to flow different vapors," Hunt says. To date, some 60 different materials can be used for coatings, providing a variety of applications: electronics, corrosion-resistant surfaces, fuel cells, glass and plastic coatings, catalytic systems and thermal barriers.
Preparing for Production
After leaving ATDC in June 1997, MCT set up shop in 7,000 square feet of space in an industrial park in Chamblee, Ga. The company quickly outgrew the space and added another 6,500 square feet last spring.
The expansion is being used to create a prototype deposition station in preparation for mass production. MCT's current deposition station uses four flames, but in the new space, a station with up to 40 flames will be constructed. More flames enables larger areas to be coated more quickly, Hunt explains.
MCT is producing products on a small scale, but plans to enter mass production this year, beginning with products for the electronics and glass industries.
"We'll be covering millions of square feet," Hunt says. "We hope to have the largest scale production of thin film coating of any process."
Hunt credits much of MCT's rapid growth to ATDC. Being an ATDC member allowed MCT direct access to Georgia Tech, including equipment, faculty and library "all of which are integral for high-tech development," Hunt says. "I probably wouldn't have started the company without ATDC. Even if I had, it wouldn't have been nearly as easy to grow."
For more information, you may call Andrew Hunt, MicroCoating Technologies, 3901 Green Industrial Way, Chamblee, GA, 30341. (Telephone: 770/457-8400)
Last updated: January 14, 1999
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