Macro growth opportunities in micro CIM



The smallest parts Net Shape Components has molded to date are these zirconia opto-electronic parts. Part mass is .030g and part density is 6.0 g/cc. Its plastic equivalent is .005g. The ID spec called for 130 µm, ±3 µm. As-molded ID is 131 µm, ±1µm. The ID/OD concentricity spec was 10 µm—Net Shape's average is 6 µm.

In May, Net Shape Components Inc. (Alpharetta, GA) announced that the U.S. Navy exercised an option to extend a Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research contract Net Shape was awarded to scale up the development of a low-cost process for the ceramic injection molding (CIM) of zirconia single-mode ferrules for fiber-optic connectors. The original contract was awarded in July 2000 and was worth $600,000 over 18 months. The option component of the contract is for an additional $150,000 over six months.

Ferrules, which are used to terminate fiber-optic fibers, are the critical and most costly components in fiber-optic connectors. They typically weigh .3g or less with ±1-µm tolerances on critical dimensions, such as the 127-µm ID. Net Shape has demonstrated that it can repeatedly produce high volumes of as-molded and fired ferrule blanks to ±.5 µm and ID/OD concentricities of <5 µm. Micromolding the blanks with ±.5-µm tolerances greatly reduces the manufacturing cost and improves quality yield.

The ferrule market is growing at nearly 30 percent annually and is expected to reach $1 billion by 2004. Nevertheless, Net Shape has licensed its technology for molding ferrules to another company. It has bigger, or rather, smaller fish to fry.

The market for micromolded components in all materials is projected to reach $26 billion to $42 billion by 2004, according to W. James Corbett Jr., Net Shape's president. Corbett sees more substantial opportunities for growth in markets other than ferrules, particularly those in which micro CIM goes against plastics micromolding, which he considers his major competition.

These .095g, 3.93-g/cu-cm alumina laser components were micromolded with .010-inch walls. Micromolding brings the superior mechanical properties of ceramics to demanding applications, maximizing the strengths of CIM while minimizing its weaknesses, according to Net Shape.

Fierce Ferrule Competition
Conventional ferrule manufacturing involves a number of costly precision diamond grinding processes. Because of the poor precision of the initial extruded ceramic blanks, low yields are the norm. That's why ferrules are the costliest part of a fiber-optic connector. The high labor content in grinding these commodity products is why they are made elsewhere, according to Corbett.

"Virtually all of the single-mode ferrules are now made in Japan, but the Chinese have targeted this market," Corbett says. "The Japanese have driven all of their U.S. competitors out of the business by dropping their prices. With 23 separate finishing steps, ferrules should cost about $1.50 apiece. The Chinese sell them for $.60 apiece with only a 40 percent yield. How?"

Corbett admits that the $200 million ferrule market is growing fast, but there is entrenched competition. He is much more interested in guiding his company into more lucrative ventures where the advantages of micro CIM really shine.

Sizes Decrease, Prices Increase
Net Shape Components is a privately held, "relatively small" company, Corbett jokes. It has been in business since 1997 and operates six low-tonnage presses, mostly Boys, at its 6000-sq-ft facility in Alpharetta. It employs six. The company makes its own recyclable CIM feedstocks with high (65 to 70 percent) solids loadings of micron- and submicron-sized particles.

Corbett helped develop a low-pressure, high-solids process for manufacturing fused silica bushings for the space shuttle at another company. He started Net Shape with Chris Schiller and John MacPherson molding parts like spinnerets—thread guides for the textile and fiber industry—but, as he says, "That market went to hell by 1999."

Net Shape Components believes that the future of CIM is in micromolding. "One kg of 10g parts may sell for $1000, but 1 kg of .1g parts may sell for $30,000," says W. James Corbett Jr., who sees plastics micromolding as his biggest competition.

His interest in micromolding was sparked by articles on the topic appearing in IMM. "It occurred to us that a powdered molded part is easier to micromold than a plastic one," Corbett remarks. "So much of our feedstock is an incompressible substance, so there really is no difficulty in controlling shot size. The mold does that. We really are only controlling what would be considered flash."

Plastics micromolding may not require any post-molding processes, but micro CIM makes up for such added costs in raw materials cost savings, according to Corbett. "Our materials costs go down dramatically as we reduce the size of parts. It's not the same in plastics. We can tailor our feedstocks to the application. And we also can produce parts with superior mechanical properties for more demanding applications at injection pressures as low as 800 psi to much higher."

Micro CIM may require post-molding processes like debinding and sintering, but Corbett says the post-molding processing times are very short with such small parts. Micro CIM maximizes the strengths of the PIM process while minimizing its weaknesses.



Contact information
Net Shape Components Inc.
Alpharetta, GA
W. James Corbett Jr.
(770) 753-0808
[email protected]

 

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