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Cambrios Technologies Strikes Gold with Silver Nanowires

Nov. 30, 2015
CEO John LeMoncheck is using tiny silver nanowires to build a major presence for Cambrios Technologies in the booming touch screen market.

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.”

In its 5,000 square foot factory floor, Cambrios uses technology such as this roll to roll coater for silver nanowires to produce enough material for 750 million smartphone screens.

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.

Not Afraid to Fail

Cambrios was co-founded in 2002 by Angela Belcher, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Evelyn Hu, of U.C. Santa Barbara (now a professor at Harvard University). At first, the company pursued a model based on their research into how biological structures were formed - coating the DNA of a virus in order to attract inorganic material and then assemble something along its spine. That worked for the tiniest amounts of material, but as LeMoncheck points out, “reprogramming a virus and getting something to grow in a petri dish is great. Thinking how you might scale that to produce hundreds of liters is pretty daunting.”

There is a culture in Silicon Valley of “not being afraid to fail and not getting hung up that your first idea kind of sucked,” LeMoncheck observes. So when one of Cambrios’ researchers discovered that a University of Washington professor had a technique for creating nanowires through a chemical engineering process, they immediately recognized it was a more promising avenue for commercial production. They licensed the technology and that is what they use today.

“It is that dogged pursuit of the right answer and not having any ego about whether it is yours or not,” he says. “That is a great entrepreneurial environment in which to work.”

It took a decade for Cambrios to develop and test its processes for commercial manufacture, being careful to ensure that the quality it achieved in the lab was maintained as it scaled up production. As a startup with limited resources, it also sought to use as much off-the-shelf technology as it could in its factory.

Working with a very tiny product presented Cambrios’ materials scientists and product engineers with a host of technical challenges. The company has to synthesize the wires, LeMoncheck explains, in a way that makes them as thin as possible but also as long as possible. “It is very hard to grow things in one direction but not the other. That is part of the challenge,” he notes.

Additives must be added to the ink to ensure that the silver does not deteriorate over time. The tiny wires have a tendency to clump together so other chemicals are used to ensure that the wires touch each other but do not bunch up.

Today, Cambrios can produce enough ink in its 5,000-square-foot Sunnyvale factory to supply nearly 750 million smartphones. While that is a huge number, Cambrios is dealing in an extremely small product. It uses highly automated processes that require careful management. It can take three months or more to train employees on the company’s manufacturing processes.

“What we do is so different than your typical manufacturing environment that we know we will have to train people from ground zero in what we do,” says LeMoncheck, who quips, “It is not like I can go out there and poach some other silver nanowire manufacturing guy.”

He says the company instead looks for “raw horsepower” – people who are smart, motivated and fit the Cambrios team culture. The company cross-trains its workers so that it can rotate them and keep their assignments fresh.

Cambrios has a small workforce of 55 employees but more than 20 are Ph.Ds. LeMoncheck says he thinks of Cambrios as a “solutions company,” noting that it has a sizable part of its workforce in its applications support group.

“We have our own pilot-scale roll-to-roll coating machine. We can do patterning and lamination. We can attach the touch electronics. We can basically make an entire touch module in our shop,” he says. This allows Cambrios to help their customers and others in the supply chain with various technical challenges. “We solve this whole problem and then we monetize it by making and selling ink on the front end.”

While Cambrios licensed the original technology, that doesn’t mean the development effort stopped. LeMoncheck notes the company is on the fifth generation of nanowire processes. That rapid innovation is necessary to compete in such a fast-changing market. LeMoncheck recalls that when he joined the company, ITO-coated film was $45 a square meter. Three years later, it costs less than $20 per square meter. And he says, 27 companies are working on technology that is similar to what Cambrios produces.

“Not being afraid of failing, knowing you have to move fast and having great competitors will really keep you on your toes,” LeMoncheck says.

In this demanding environment, protection of intellectual property is a major advantage of operating in the U.S., LeMoncheck observes.

“Staying in a place that respects intellectual property like the U.S. is really good for us,” he states.

About the Author

Steve Minter | Steve Minter, Executive Editor

Focus: Leadership, Global Economy, Energy

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Follow on Twitter: @SgMinterIW

An award-winning editor, Executive Editor Steve Minter covers leadership, global economic and trade issues and energy, tackling subject matter ranging from CEO profiles and leadership theories to economic trends and energy policy. As well, he supervises content development for editorial products including the magazine, IndustryWeek.com, research and information products, and conferences.

Before joining the IW staff, Steve was publisher and editorial director of Penton Media’s EHS Today, where he was instrumental in the development of the Champions of Safety and America’s Safest Companies recognition programs.

Steve received his B.A. in English from Oberlin College. He is married and has two adult children.

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