A few years ago, Cambrios Technologies found that its product, a conductive coating used in touch-sensitive display screens, was suddenly not performing as well as it had previously. Their investigation turned up the fact that one of its materials suppliers had improved its product by removing some of the impurities. It turned out, though, that the “impurities” were the active ingredient in the product that helped its performance.

Cambrios was able to jump on the problem and solve it quickly, says President and CEO John LeMoncheck, because of a “tight coupling” between manufacturing and engineering. Indeed, he says Cambrios was able to file a patent because of its investigation into the issue.

That close relationship between product development and production of the product has been under attack in recent years as many manufacturers kept their R&D in the United States but moved the bulk of their manufacturing to Asia. And that view of the value of manufacturing activity is even rarer in Silicon Valley, where Cambrios Technologies has its home.

LeMoncheck says he is enjoying this close knit production environment, contrasting it with his earlier work experience “as a fabless semiconductor guy sending an electronic data file over to Taiwan and then hoping they do it right and send me back chips.”

It’s a potent mix of research, process development and agile leadership that has Cambrios Technologies, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., on the leading edge of the massive growth in touch-sensitive display screens. That market was ignited by the Apple iPhone in 2007 and just the smartphone segment is forecast by TechNavio to grow more than 10% a year through 2019.

“Touch on cell phones, tablets and so forth is a huge market,” says LeMoncheck. “You need a transparent conductor to sense your finger touching the screen but not get in the way of the display behind it.”

Cambrios creates very fine wires of silver – these nanowires are just tens of nanometers in diameter and tens of microns long– and immerses them in a coating that can be applied to various materials to create a conductive layer. The wires form a mesh – LeMoncheck likens them to “long threads of silver spaghetti” - that is not visible to the eye. This transparency allows the coating to be used on screens without blocking the display image.

Touch screens traditionally have used a conductive layer formed from indium tin oxide (ITO). Since ITO is a ceramic, LeMoncheck says, it must be vapor deposited under extreme heat and pressure. That works for glass but not more fragile materials. Cambrios’ technology, however, can be coated on plastic at room temperature.

“You can make a thinner, much lighter touchscreen using our silver nanowires,” LeMoncheck says. And since silver is more abundant than indium, a rare earth, it offers a price advantage.

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But LeMoncheck said Cambrios was careful not to base its approach to the market on simply being cheaper than ITO, but to look for an inherent advantage in the application of its technology

Happily for Cambrios, consumer electronics firms have been moving to larger touch screens. That was spurred by Microsoft’s introduction of Windows 8, an operating system that uses touch for laptops as well as tablets and smartphones. As these screens get larger, the need for better conductivity to provide adequate response time increases. Since silver is so conductive, Cambrios’ technology offered a good fit with these products.

Cambrios supplies its coating product to companies such as 3M, Hitachi Chemical, Samsung and others who then apply it to film. This coated product was supplied to LG for its 23-inch all-in-one computer, the launch vehicle for Windows 8 four years ago. Other computer firms adopting Cambrios’ technology include Lenovo, HP, Acer and Toshiba. LeMoncheck estimates that the company has roughly 15% of the large-area touch screen market.

LeMoncheck knows the consumer electronics and high tech world well. Before joining Cambrios, he was president and CEO of SiBEAM, a pioneer and leader in millimeter-wave technologies for wireless communications. Prior to SiBEAM, he was vice president at Silicon Image, where he led the company's launch and commercialization of the HDMI standard. He has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from U.C. San Diego and spent several years researching VLSI for imaging and pattern recognition applications at Caltech.

LeMoncheck says Cambrios is also making inroads into products with smaller screens. That is being spurred by efforts to make screens from plastics that are flexible and less fragile than glass.

“There is a lot of discussion now about curved devices for wearables, flexible phones, even things that you can actually fold in half. Imagine an 8-inch tablet that you can fold up and put in your pocket like a cell phone,” said LeMoncheck. “These devices are coming and a lot of that technology is being enabled by our material.”

Cambrios is also moving into other markets where transparent or flexible conductors are needed. For example, its material is used by Suntrica, a Finnish manufacturer of portable solar charging products used for camping and other applications. LeMoncheck says that solar offer a “great market” for Cambrios because its technology can be used to reduce the weight of solar panels.

“There are a lot of places you would like to retrofit with solar that just can’t bear the weight of these big, heavy cells,” he said, citing applications such as bus canopies and tents.

On November 17, Cambrios entered the medical device field, providing its ClearOhm films to Sigmascreening and Claymount, both Netherlands-based manufacturers, for use in a new mammography device that promises to offer women a less painful examination. The Sensitive Sigma Paddle is a compression plate that senses the size of the patient’s breast and the stiffness of her breast tissue. The flexible conductor material provided by Cambrios enables the X-ray sensor film used in the paddle.

“This tray is flexible and cushioned so it can sense and conform to the woman and just is not as uncomfortable,” LeMoncheck explained, adding that the new trays will be shipped with GE mammography machines in early 2016.