Technology shines spotlight on Plasma Etch
December 23, 2012
Greg DeLarge and his team at Carson City’s Plasma Etch Inc. has been getting lots of attention – the good kind of attention – from environmentalists in the last week or so.
Gratifying as he finds the plaudits from the environmental community, the president and chief executive officer of Plasma Tech is hopeful that the new technology will allow the company to break ahead of its competitors – including Chinese competitors that ignored Plasma Tech’s patents to bring knockoffs to market.
Here’s the big deal: Plasma etching historically has required use of chlorofluorocarbon, a greenhouse gas linked to damage to the ozone layer that surrounds the Earth. But the technology developed by DeLarge doesn’t require use of the gas. That gets the attention of environmental regulators, who banned use of the gas in most applications two decades ago.
No one knows exactly how much of the gas is emitted into the atmosphere by plasma-etching operations, says Kirk Connet, the marketing manager of Plasma Etch.
“However, it’s estimated to be a significantly substantial amount,” he says, noting that about 100,000 plasma etch-systems worldwide release the greenhouse gas.
Manufacturers of printed circuit boards are paying attention to the Carson City company because its new technology allows them to reduce their operating costs – a critical factor in the highly competitive circuit-board industry. The Plasma Etch technology saves manufacturers the cost of buying expensive gases, costs that can run in the tens of thousands dollars weekly for some tech manufacturers.
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DeLarge, however, hadn’t set out to develop an environmentally friendly plasma etch system when he started work on the new system more than a year ago. Instead, he wanted to find a way to improve the operation of the systems sold by Plasma Etch Inc. so that they would deliver more uniform results.
The company’s sophisticated equipment relies on a complicated mix of gases, temperature and power ranges to create precise recipes for the cleaning and etching requirements of manufacturers who make everything from solar cells to heart pacemakers.
The new technology, DeLarge explains, dramatically changes the recipe – almost as if a baker discovered how to make many varieties of bread without using salt, and found that the bread tasted better at the same time.
Plasma Etch, which moved to Carson City from California about 18 years ago, long has been recognized as one of the technological leaders in its specialized markets.
But Chinese knockoffs, copies that don’t respect the patents held by Plasma Etch, have chewed into the profitability of the Carson City company.
While a patent is pending on the core inventions in the new technology, DeLarge has taken an even more cautious approach to protection of the intellectual property. He flat-out won’t talk about details of the system. And he really won’t talk about the breakthrough insight that allowed him to move the technology from small-scale tests into commercial-sized applications.
Barely more than three weeks ago, DeLarge wasn’t entirely certain that the new technology he was developing at Plasma Etch Inc. would deliver the results he wanted. He was frustrated by his inability to solve some of the problems he’d encountered.
DeLarge says he had a couple of words for himself – “Slow down, think about what you are doing” – before he took a deep breath and worked through the roadblocks.
He’s been working with plasma etching technology since he was 19 and joined the company founded by his father.
At its headquarters along Arrowhead Drive just east of the Carson City Airport, Plasma Etch provides contract etching services to some manufacturers and makes the systems it sells for anywhere from $8,000 to $500,000 each to companies around the world.
“We’ve always been the innovators,” DeLarge says. “People copy us.