The burgeoning markets for LED lights and scratch-resistant screens for mobile devices are driving one local industry to ramp up production in an effort to become a major player in the business.
Vestar Technologies located in Covington in late 2011, but the company only recently started production, as it spent 2012 developing processes and getting equipment ready to enter a new market. The company originally said it planned to hire up to 100 people in its first five years, and those plans are on track.
Arthur Stowe, marketing manager of Vestar’s parent company Elmet Technologies, said the Covington plant employs about 25 people and plans to hire another 50 to 75 employees over the next two to three years. To apply for jobs, people can visit vestartech.theresumator.com/apply; the only job currently open is a CNC (computer numerical control) operator/machinist.
While many mobile device screens are made of glass, some phone and electronics manufacturers are exploring using manufactured (not natural-occurring) sapphire.
According to a March 20 article on MIT Technology Review’s website, sapphire is the second-hardest material on earth, behind only diamond, and is approximately three times as strong as Gorilla Glass, a common screen protector produced by Corning.
A Gorilla Glass display costs less than $3, while a sapphire display would cost about $30, but several manufacturers are working to lower costs, according to the article, which also noted that sapphire is used as a transparent armor on military vehicles.
Stowe said the scratch-resistant nature of sapphire is what makes it particularly appealing for electronic displays.
Elmet’s Covington plant does not actually produce sapphire, but the company – which also has locations in Maine and China – has long produced tungsten and molybdenum, two metals which play a role in the manufacturing of synthetic sapphire. While Elmet is a small-to-medium-size business in the field of producing tungsten and molybdenum, Stowe said, the company’s Covington plant will make it one of the leaders in producing the metal crucibles used to manufacture sapphire.
What Elmet does
Elmet begins with the powder forms of tungsten and molybdenum, and places them into a water-tight mold, for a shape such as a crucible or ingot (types of containers), and then submerges that mold in a cold-water press and applies enormous amounts of pressure to it, 27,000 pounds per square inch for molybdenum and 60,000 pounds per square inch for tungsten, according to Stowe. The pressure causes the powder to stick together in the desired shape. Then the metal is placed in a special oven and baked at between 1,700-1,900 degrees Celsius (3,092-3,452 degrees Fahrenheit) for several hours before it is further worked to make it 100 percent dense, Stowe said.
How sapphire is made
Those crucibles are crucial to sapphire production, Stowe said.
The synthetic sapphire production process begins with aluminum oxide powder being packed into a crucible, around 12 to 18 inches in diameter. The crucible is heated to a temperature higher than 2,000 degrees Celsius, and then a small piece of sapphire (called a seed) is introduced into the molten aluminum oxide which begins the crystal formation, Stowe said.
Other process in Covington
The Covington plant will also produce a full line of metal products and has a large rolling mill for rolling plates of tungsten and molybdenum, which can either be final products themselves or used to form other products. Elmet also has machining capabilities, so it can create a wide variety of metal products.
One interesting application of molybdenum is its use in flat panel TV displays. Through a complex process, called sputtering, molybdenum targets are exposed to certain gases in a machine, which actually causes molybdenum to come off of the plate and form a thin film on the flat-panel display. This allows TV developers to build circuitry for their screens, Stowe said, acknowledging his description was very simplified.
The Covington plant’s rolling mill will be bigger and better than the one in Maine, he said.
Stowe said even after the current plans are realized, the Covington location will have room for future expansions if opportunities arise.
"Producing spun and centered crucibles will enable us to compete with anyone in the world (in that market). (Now we have to) actually go and do that and be successful in the marketplace. We have the technology and capability in place to make this plant competitive," Stowe said.
Stowe said the crucible market has been around for a while, and the company will have to work to make up ground, but he said it is getting traction in the marketplace. Though the LED light market – LED lights are the main users of synthetic sapphire at the moment – slumped because of overcapacity, Stowe said the market is beginning to stabilize.
"We’re anticipating in the next year or so the market growth will return, and we’ll be a little more active," Stowe said.
Elmet is located in Lochridge Industrial Park at 15160 Prater Drive in Covington.