Big Growth from Thin Films
Kitchener, Ontario-based Angstrom Engineering, Inc. has built a strong international reputation providing equipment and services to support the growing market of thin film nanotechnology. Angstrom designs and assembles equipment used to make thin films via physical vapour deposition (PVD) or a chemical vapour deposition (CVD) process. Angstrom also offers thin film coating as a service for clients that prefer this option over owning and operating their own thin film deposition equipment. These microscopically thin layers of material have many uses.
“Thin films are everywhere, and that’s probably something that isn’t necessarily apparent to everybody. Every computer chip, every semiconductor device has thin films or is entirely created with thin films,” says Vice President Andrew Campbell.
Other products that utilize thin films include organic light-emitting diodes (OLED), solar-energy cells and batteries, and medical devices such as biosensors that monitor biological conditions. Everyday items that use thin films include food packaging – think potato chip bags – eye glasses, and cutting tools for manufacturing operations.
“Right now, our biggest emerging market is quantum computing. For the last couple years, it was OLED displays. We work a lot of these higher-tech markets and emerging tech markets,” says Campbell.
Given changing market conditions, Angstrom must remain responsive to new industry trends and developments. Innovation, quality, and flexibility are central to its mission as systems are built to client specifications.
Thin film equipment is assembled on site by a team of technicians and engineers. At present, there are roughly seventy employees, a number that has been steadily growing in recent years.
Angstrom has benefited from the increasingly ubiquitous use of thin films and has expanded rapidly. It was featured in a Canadian Business magazine companion article about ‘Kitchener-Waterloo’s Fastest Growing Companies.’ In September 2018, the company was number 482 on Canadian Business magazine’s Growth 500 list, which ranked Canada’s fastest growing firms over the previous five years. The list is based on revenue growth.
Angstrom’s rapid growth stems largely from the fact that “most of the applications we are heavily involved in are doing well right now. Organic LEDs, which are OLEDs, those displays are commercial now. They are in almost every cell phone and will probably soon be in many tablets then laptop screens. They are in TVs now, although those are on the very expensive end of things. So that market is doing really well. Thin film solar cell technology is making progress and we are seeing strong investment in this area,” notes Campbell.
Other sectors that the company serves, including traditional semiconductors and computer chips, are also performing strongly.
Angstrom was founded in 1992 by Andrew Bass who worked alone on the business until 1999 when he took the large step to add employees. The company grew organically by providing customizable and unique equipment solutions, excellent customer communication and strong follow-up support.
“We focus a lot on the customer. We do take customer service and our customer value very seriously,” states Angstrom President Dave Pitts. Angstrom has served customers in over fifty countries across various continents.
But its inclusion on the Growth 500 is all the more impressive given the relatively limited domestic market for its equipment and products. “There’s some challenges being [in Canada]. One challenge is that most of the global market isn’t in Canada. We export well over ninety percent of our products and services. There are challenges in being a Canadian company because you have to export a lot of what you do [and you feel] the impact of trade agreements. Relationships with other countries have been challenging lately,” notes Campbell.
However, being based in Kitchener is highly beneficial in other ways. Not only is Kitchener a historic manufacturing hub, but it is also located in the Waterloo region, a technological epicentre dubbed ‘Silicon Valley North.’ Waterloo is home to one-time cell phone giant BlackBerry, branches of Google and Shopify, and countless computer start-ups.
The University of Waterloo (UW), meanwhile, boasts highly regarded science and engineering departments. The presence of UW, plus other institutions, makes for a huge pool of new graduates and potential workers.
“We’re in an area where there are a lot of universities. Not just U Waterloo, but also University of Guelph, University of Western Ontario, McMaster University, University of Windsor, University of Toronto, Wilfrid Laurier, Conestoga College, and other colleges as well. It’s incredible. The availability of people is great here,” reports Campbell.
Waterloo Region “is known for programming and computer science and engineering but we’re also known for manufacturing and machining and automation. There’s also finance, accounting, business expertise, and marketing. There really is expertise in this region in every area needed to do our business,” he continues, noting that the company is “also getting people with world-class knowledge in machine building from other companies.”
With so much talent to choose from, Angstrom Engineering wants employees who are well-rounded. “We really focus on people’s personality and interest in learning and developing. Our product is unique enough that most people won’t have a background that is specific to what our product is. So we look for people who take an interest in learning as the company learns. We want people who work hard but who can collaborate and work well together,” explains Pitts.
To ensure continued growth and satisfied customers, Angstrom uses a comprehensive internal quality management system that follows industry standard practices, including regular reviews, check-lists, and quality controls, according to Pitts. Internal quality assurance procedures are complemented by third-party evaluations, he adds.
Angstrom’s wide-ranging website features a series of videos for customers, “where we show some service elements, how to change oil, things like that with their machinery,” reports Campbell. In addition to these online educational efforts, the company also conducts in-person courses related to thin-film and other topics.
The firm belongs to the Society of Vacuum Coaters, Materials Research Society, and other groups in the materials science and thin film sector fields. Some of these organizations are “looking to bring educational content to members. So, we’re trying to grow that educational content with them. We started that in 2017, so it’s fairly new for us, but it’s already been valuable. We’ve been happy with what we’re able to bring back to the community, and our investment has been helpful on the sales end,” reports Campbell.
Angstrom occasionally exhibits at trade shows with some of these industry associations as well.
Asked if the company plans to offer any new services or products in the future, Campbell says, “absolutely yes.” Much of the company’s development is customer-driven, he explains. Angstrom will partner with customers then assign engineers and scientists to perform research and development on product ideas.
“We make equipment. But what our customers do with the machinery is really important for us to understand. We really try to hire people who are keen and interested in the technology our customers are working on,” says Campbell.
The company is particularly enthused about its involvement in burgeoning fields such as quantum computing. “What has been emerging for us has been the [rising popularity] of quantum computing and the need to fabricate the qubits that are the foundation of quantum computers. This year, it’s been a really big market for us. We are currently working on some key projects in this field. I’m optimistic that it will be a really big market over the next decade for us,” says Campbell.
This explosion in quantum computing “isn’t really centred in any area. The U.S. has significant investment through government and some of the U.S. multinational companies. There’s also a lot of academic interest globally,” continues Campbell.
While it might be a booming sector, Angstrom Engineering has no intention of focusing all of its efforts on quantum computing. Offering products for a diverse range of applications has always been the company’s goal.
“We’ve got some products we want to get into the market. There are applications we’re not involved in right now that we want to be more involved in,” says Campbell. “We know doing this is going to require more people and a bigger space, so we’re looking at growing our headquarters here in Kitchener.”
In addition to pondering new products and new markets, the firm is faced with the challenge of maintaining its unique, cooperative culture as it continues to expand.
“We’re growing organically. We’re hiring people, developing people. That’s been our big focus. As we grow and add people, we want to try and maintain the culture that we think is valuable, where we work together and work to build strong relationships with our customers and grow partnerships with them,” states Campbell.