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Elmicron to open SFr10 million nano-parts foundry in Zug

Elmicron pioneered the mass production of micro- and nano-sized precision parts.

(Elmicron)

Elmicron AG is expanding with a new site in Zug to meet demand for its micro- and nano-sized precision equipment used in the automotive, electronics, and watchmaking industries.

Since the two-year-old firm came up with a way to mass produce micro and nano-sized precision parts, demand for its products has soared. At the moment, it is operating at such capacity that every available space at its current site in Sachseln is occupied.

Journalists attending a press conference at the site recently had to climb over boxes of office supplies to gain access to the building.

"There is just not enough room here in Obwalden for the new factory, so we will expand to Zug," says Jürg Strub, CEO and co-founder of Elmicron, which was spun off from the more than four decades old electro-forming company ELFO AG. Both are based in Sachseln on the shores of Sarner Sea near Lucerne.

The opening of the new site, which will include 800 square metres of office space, in addition to the 2500 square meters of factory space, is planned for August. Expansion to 10,000 square metres of factory space in Zug is planned over the next three years.

Strub says his firm will also have access to a larger pool of engineers in Zug as it is a more central location.

Fast growth and new jobs

Elmicron is privately owned, although ELFO, which makes a range of products, including permanent coffee and tea filters, still retains a large chunk of the equity. The young company had a turnover of some SFr3 million the last year that it reported figures.

Within the next five years, turnover is expected to climb to SFr100 million. Elmicron employs 60 people, 25 of which are engineers. It will employ 75 by year-end.

The company has found it fairly easy to find venture capital financing. It raised SFr10 million last year and will do so again this year, it told Swiss Venture Update.

The young firm's rapid growth is based on its ability to solve some of the toughest problems in micro and nano-sized parts manufacturing, such as how to make tiny gears for watches that need no polishing prior to use in volume, or churn out tiny antennas that can be installed in the human eye along with sensors (made by another manufacturer) to measure and transmit pressure readings for glaucoma patients.

Only a handful of European suppliers are able to manufacture such parts in volume so demand is robust.

From uranium nozzles to ink jet printers

Elmicron uses a process called low-cost lithographic galvanization, dubbed LC-LIGA, to make the molds for tiny metal or plastic precision parts.

The original LIGA process was developed in the eighties at the Nuclear Research Centre Karlsruhe, now called the "Institut für Mikrostukturtechnik at Forschungszenrum Karlsruhe" (Institute of Micro Structure Technique at Karlsruhe Research Centre).

The inventors hoped to use developed the technique to manufacture tiny nozzles to squeeze high concentrations of enrichment of uranium for use in nuclear reactors.

Modifying and industrializing the Karlsruhe team's original process, using light to chisel out the molds, instead of X-rays, makes the process much cheaper to perform. "In contrast to the original LIGA method, which involves lithography, we use an inexpensive process where ultra-violet light is used to make, followed by electroplating and forming or molding," says Strub.

There are companies in the United States, Taiwan, Japan and Germany using the technique but many lack the ability to industrialize it, according to Strub.

Microtools and nano-sized parts

Some of the things made using the technique include nozzles for ink jet printers and other IT peripherals, as well as biomedical products. It is targeted as an important process, scalable from micro-sized parts down to nano-sized.

Elmicron also makes its own microtools to manufacture parts in volume. The manufacturers of the euro acquired a tool developed by Elmicron to emboss a nano-sized metallic strip on euro bills to protect against counterfeiting of the new currency.

A major automobile manufacturer is using a paper-thin metal cog fabricated in Elmicron's Sachseln plant in the steering column of prototype automobiles. The part enables electrical and electronic components to actually replace conventional mechanical and electromechanical components.

There is plenty of opportunity in this space as the burgeoning of startups suggests. "Small companies are emerging to manufacture microstructures using this technique, especially in Switzerland and Germany," says Prof Dr. Werner K Schomburg of the Institute of Micro Structure Technique at Karlsruhe.

One of the leading startups in the region is the Karlsruhe-based STEAG Microparts, a spinoff of the German research center that discovered the LIGA process. The young company employs 220 people and it expects to double its €20 million yearly turnover by 2005. It specializes in mass production using LC-LIGA micro molding processes of disposable biomedical products and ink jet printer products.

Another important player is Mildendo, named after the capital city in Lilliput, the land of the little people in Jonathan Swift's classic, Gulliver's Travels. It is a two-year old spinoff of the Jena-based optical technologies firm, Jenoptik. It makes products for microfluidic applications in biotechnology, medical, and related industries in large volumes.

Large competitors include Dynamic Research Company's micro precision parts division in the US and Japan's Hitachi. The Americans use a competing process to LC-LIGA, something called 2D electro-forming.

By Valerie Thompson


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