PhiChem Open House a Success!
Delighted to be invited to an exclusive preview of the new PhiChem global headquarters and R&D centre in Shanghai’s Baoshan suburb, I joined the VIP group assembled at the PhiChem booth at the CPCA show, made welcome by PhiChem President Dr. Jin Zhang.
An hour’s private bus ride brought us to an immaculately presented site—four brand-new buildings with a total of 500,000 square feet of floor area: administration, pilot plant manufacturing and packaging, warehousing, fronted by a spectacularly impressive six-story laboratory complex, which had taken five years from green-field site to completion.
Gleaming! Through reception and into a display area with glass showcases holding examples of PhiChem’s products and applications, and an appropriate place for Dr. Zhang to begin his explanation of PhiChem’s evolution since he founded the company in 2002.
A graduate chemist, with an MS degree in optics, and many years’ experience in microelectronics packaging and the development of optical and laser materials and components, Jin Zhang gained his doctorate in polymer chemistry at the University of Michigan in the U.S. Recognising the rapid growth in the demand for optical fibres for data and telecoms transmission, and a fundamental requirement for glass fibres to be coated for mechanical protection and enhancement of their optical properties, Dr. Zhang returned to China and began production of UV-curable coating resins in Shanghai. Since 2002, PhiChem has grown to become China’s largest supplier of UV-curable materials to the optical fibre industry and second largest in the world, producing all of its own raw materials and resin precursors.
Dr. Zhang reached into a display cabinet and took a short length of fibre from a large spool, explaining that the widespread use of high bandwidth optical fibre would not have been feasible without the protection afforded by UV-curable coatings. The sample he demonstrated had a coated diameter of 250 microns, the glass itself being half that diameter, and the combination of glass and coating had a tensile strength of five kilograms. Talking of high speed, he remarked that the fibre was coated and cured on-the-fly at 3000 metres per minute!
How does a leading supplier of specialist polymer coatings diversify its product range? Dr. Zhang walked to another display case and removed what appeared to be a polished cast-metal automotive component. When he handed it around, it was clear that the material was far too light in weight to be made of metal—it was in fact a plastic moulding with a two-layer polymer finish.
And, with a background in the electronics industry and many years’ experience in the development of UV-curable resins, another logical area of development was in photoresists for PCB and LED production, also for chemical milling of aluminium, stainless-steel and copper components. And to complement the product group, solder masks for PCBs and solder pastes for SMT assembly. Dr. Zhang proudly showed many examples of the ways in which PhiChem continues to build its identity as an emerging major player in the electronics materials market.
PhiChem’s product range did not stop there: it had further diversified its portfolio to include ceramic materials, such as high purity (99.999%) alumina for the manufacture of single crystal sapphire, used in substrates for LED manufacturing and as transparent windows for displays on electronic products.
After this comprehensive introduction, it was time to direct our attention to the primary objective of our visit, to preview PhiChem’s new R&D centre. We took the elevator to the sixth level and worked our way down floor by floor.
Several of us in the party had experience of working in high-end R&D. Speaking personally, I spent quite a few years of my early career in research laboratories equipped with leading-edge facilities and, having visited many since, I can be pretty blasé and difficult to impress when presented with what is promoted as the latest and greatest.
But PhiChem’s laboratories were magnificent in every respect! Breath-taking would not be an exaggeration. There was acres of space, spotlessly clean and environmentally controlled, equipped with every conceivable provision for materials synthesis, materials analysis, applications development and reliability testing; all of it was brand new and staffed by more than 70 skilled scientists, engineers and technicians.
The research department on the sixth floor consisted of a complex of laboratories and engineer offices, with advanced polymer characterisation apparatus such as gel permeation chromatography and high-performance liquid chromatography for determining molecular weight distribution and understanding and predicting polymer performance. In addition, the R&D scientists had direct access to spray coating chambers and vacuum plating machines. PhiChem does all of its own synthesis, with a laboratory dedicated to developing new methods and products, and many patents to its credit.
Down one floor to the analytical laboratories, with such an array of instrumentation that I could not write quickly enough to note down all that I saw. Certainly, the list included inductively coupled plasma emission spectroscopy for determination of trace elements, thermo-gravimetric analysers, differential scanning calorimeters and comparative thermal analysers for determination of thermo-mechanical characteristics of polymers, the latest model Hitachi scanning electron microscope complete with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, gas-liquid chromatographs and analysers for volatile organic compounds, Fourier-transform infra-red spectroscopy, and, for those of us that could remember the good old days, a traditional wet-chemistry lab! Separately, a mechanical laboratory had an array of tensile-testing machines.
Down again to a department synthesising electronic materials and photoresists, with yellow safelight and exposure units for practical testing. Next door, a unit for solder paste development, again with comprehensive facilities for evaluation and characterisation, including stencil printers and a production-scale reflow oven.
The next floor down was dedicated to cleanrooms, Class 1000 and Class 100, for the preparation of IC packaging materials. We were not allowed in there in our street clothes!
Back to the ground floor, past the company restaurant—with space for 400 people and lunch provided at the company’s expense—and across to the next building to see the pilot plant for resins and coatings. Some pilot plant! It was an extensive array of gleaming resin kettles with the capacity to produce 100-ton batches. Dr. Zhang explained that PhiChem’s principal manufacturing base is located 500 km west of Shanghai in the city of Anqing, and more recently an additional manufacturing plant has been established in Huizhou, near Shenzhen. The Baoshan pilot plant is primarily for pre-production manufacture and packaging of new products and small batches of special materials.
As the tour concluded it was evident to me that PhiChem is now uniquely poised for rapid growth in the China electronic materials markets. Upon conclusion of the tour, Dr. Zhang commented that PhiChem is actively seeking new partnerships and acquisitions with specialty chemical and material companies around the world.
Returning to our bus for the trip back to into Shanghai, we reflected on what a splendid experience it had been to see PhiChem’s new headquarters site, which represented a $40 million investment and had taken five years from concept to completion. Dr. Haiyo Nakahara summed up Dr. Jin Zhang’s far-sightedness and determination, with this simple but meaningful statement: “He had the vision to see it and the guts to do it!”