FEATURE
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Keep it real

Mike Mason, vice president of technology at Powerlase, says the secret to developing mutually profitable customer relationships lies in creating solutions to real-world problems.

A recurring challenge often faced by those in the manufacturing and engineering businesses is establishing and maintaining a balance between cutting-edge research, developing fantastic technology and generating revenues for manufacturers and their customers through business contracts.

It’s easy for product designers and engineers to fall into the trap of believing development for the sake of development is a good thing when the very opposite can be true. It is therefore vital that companies within the photonics sector maintain a close working relationship with customers, potential customers and research partners in order to ensure the technology they develop can meet real-world industrial requirements.

Focus on customers over applications

A crucial factor for businesses operating in the photonics sector is to ensure that, from day one, time and effort is expended in developing real-world applications for customers. Spending time on R&D projects to make the most powerful, the biggest, the smallest, the lightest product on the market, for the sake of it, is not necessarily best for business.

It’s important that manufacturers do not become lost in the promise of a technology, but focus on what customers really need. Providing customers with what they want and working with them to adapt technology ensures their needs, both now and in the future, can be catered for.

While the technology developed can be worldleading, bringing products to market can often present a tougher challenge than that faced during their initial design. For example our laser technology was developed for an area of semiconductor chip fabrication that would not be adopted by the industry until 2009 at the earliest.

As such, we began looking into other manufacturing sectors and talking to companies about the application of laser technology within existing manufacturing processes. Automotive, aerospace and cutting and milling applications were all explored, but one sector that stood out was the flatpanel display (FPD) television and monitor market.

Although at the time full scale consumer and business adoption of FPDs was nascent, demand as increasing. As this ramped up, manufacturers were faced with two specific obstacles. When manufacturing FPDs, a thin coat of the transparent and conductive material (usually Indium Tin Oxide or ITO) that sits on the monitor’s screen needs to be patterned with complex shapes that ultimately form the screen’s pixels.

To achieve this, manufacturers had been using a wet-etch lithography process. This was complex and involved the use of large scale steppers and patterning equipment, the running costs of which ran into the millions. To pattern an ITO coated screen required two coatings, followed by exposure to a prepared photomask. The screen then had to be developed and washed before etching could take place. The etching itself involved the use of harsh chemicals to remove the coating from the screen.

Each time chemicals are used the removed coating contaminates them, making them unsuitable for continued use. The cost of chemicals combined with high cost of ownership related to the stepper and pattering machines meant manufacturing costs were high.

FPD manufacturers were therefore keen to develop a more modern method of screen patterning that could lower the cost of manufacture, and therefore reduce consumer prices. We began working with market-leading FPD manufacturers to address these issues. By maintaining close working relationships with project managers and engineers, we were able to identify the exact requirements of the manufacturers. This allowed a technique to be created that could achieve the same or better results as the wet-etch lithography approach, but reduce the cost of ownership for manufacturers, the complexity of the process and the impact on the environment. The technique, which has been dubbed rapid laser patterning (RLP), has been widely adopted for use in plasma display panel (PDP) television manufacture and also has potential in other FPD manufacture, including LCD and touch screen displays.

Making technology development entirely customer driven sounds obvious, but it seems it is all too commonplace within the photonics industry to develop powerful technology which is not focused on genuine customer requirements. If, instead, companies aim to create a product or process that fits the specific requirements, they will have something customers simply cannot resist.

Continual improvement

By creating and maintaining a close working relationship, a customer’s real needs can be identified. Only then can companies think about how their technology can fit in or improve processes.

This can also foster longer term business opportunities. It is relatively easy to get a customer to buy into a great piece of technology once, but real business success comes from repeated business and volume purchases. If there is a pre-existing relationship in place, there is already an atmosphere of trust and confidence that makes negotiating an agreement a great deal easier. We’ve had particular success in this regard with our Korean customers, who place a high value on regular face-to-face contact and continual questioning regarding the improvement of process.

If done well, this can often be beneficial to both company and customer. The company ends up with a product or process so precisely honed other customers begin to knock on the door. Customers benefit from a modern, scalable solution that helps them achieve better results, from product manufacture to profit and company performance.

Once our customers understood the business benefits that could be gained from our laser technology, they were keener to drill down into product detail and specifications. Demand for FPD products has increased exponentially over the past few years and, by investing in laser systems, manufacturers have increased output, while reducing not only the cost of manufacturing, but also the cost to the environment, through greener, cleaner manufacturing techniques.

In short, photonics companies need to realise that if you work with customers to give them exactly what they need, when they need it, you cannot fail.