The Glue that Makes Gadgets Ultrathin
TeamChem is the first Taiwanese company that managed to break into the Japanese monopoly on the cutting-edge adhesive film that is replacing thicker connectors in electronic gadgets. Without it the new iPad would not be as slim and sleek as it is.
The Glue that Makes Gadgets UltrathinBy Ching-hsuan Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 476 )
As head of R&D at the corporate headquarters of adhesives giant 3M in Minnesota, Todd Yeh developed the famous adhesive strips that affix hooks to walls without damaging them.
Today he is still wearing a white lab coat, but no longer sits in a brightly lit 3M lab packed with expensive instruments. Yeh quit his high-paying job at 3M ten years ago, packed up the family belongings and returned to Taiwan. There he started from scratch, founding his own company in Taoyuan County outside of Taipei to immerse himself, again, in the research of adhesives. The company, TeamChem, is hidden in a non-descript factory building made of corrugated metal that is almost impossible to find without a local guide.
Sitting in the dimly lit TeamChem laboratory, Yeh uses small tweezers to gingerly pull out a spool of ultrathin adhesive film from its case. Peering through a microscope, he pastes the film, measuring just 0.15 cm in width and 0.002 cm in thickness, onto a golden flexible printed circuit (FPC) board that is densely packed with electric circuits. Then he attaches the end of the FPC board with the adhesive film to a rigid printed circuit board and slowly puts the assembly into a hot forming press at a temperature of 115 degrees Celsius and an atmospheric pressure of 0.3 MPa.
Seven seconds later the nearly weightless adhesive film has created a connection between the tiny circuits on both the flexible and rigid circuit boards.
A Technology as Valuable as Gold
A 50 meter roll of this "anisotropic conductive film (ACF)" weighs less than 100 grams, yet comes at a heavy price of US$100, although its production does not require massive, space consuming production lines or huge start-up capital. Just three rolls of film cost as much as a netbook consisting of more than a thousand parts and components.
"This product is certain to have a high profit margin. Gold costs NT$1.5 million per kilo, and the conductive particles in the ACF also exceed NT$1.5 million per kilo too. This is making money by selling technology," notes Lee Tzong-ming, division head at the Material and Chemical Laboratories of the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). Lee and his ITRI team, who were among the winners of the recent 2011 R&D 100 Awards, have also done research on ACF.
Because of this ultrathin adhesive film, Taiwan's information and communications technology (ICT) industry faced an impending supply crisis after the massive earthquake that devastated northeastern Japan in March this year. Industry insiders and analysts were extremely worried at the time because Hitachi Chemical and Sony Chemical, which together supply more than 90 percent of ACF world demand, are both located in the disaster zone.
Tablets Can't Do without It
Without ACF, tablets like the iPad would not be as slim and sleek as they are. When dismantling the latest iPad, Amy Teng, a principal research analyst in Gartner Research's Taiwan office, discovered that it used ACF not only to attach the touch screen panel control IC, but also to connect two rigid boards, a job performed by conventional connectors in the past. As a result, the iPad2 has become even slimmer than an iPhone.
In the future soaring demand for ever slimmer and lighter electronic gadgets will lead to a gradual replacement of comparably thick connectors by ultrathin ACF.
It took Yeh six years, during which he almost burned through his start-up capital, to develop his proprietary ACF. The product is now patented, and in June this year TeamChem was certified as a smart phone touch screen assembly plant. Mass production has just begun.
During the startup phase, TeamChem has been subsidizing its ACF research costs with profits from its other main product, ductile solder mask. Many smart phone makers, from Apple to Taiwan's HTC, use TeamChem's ductile solder mask for the eight to ten FPC boards typically found in handsets.
In June a symposium, organized by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, looked into the petrochemical industry's potential to move up the value chain. But many well-known petrochemical firms grumbled: "We don't have the technology or the talent, so moving up the value chain won't be that easy."
But why is it that a small chemical company with just NT$36 million in paid-in capital can master solder masks for flexible boards and ACF technology with profit margins of above 60 percent? How can a small company eat away at the virtual market monopoly of Japanese makers in the field of high-end electrochemical products?
Yeh studied chemical engineering and researched macromolecules in graduate school. During his time in the United States, Yeh enjoyed the freedom to do what he wanted, be it in graduate school or at 3M. His professors and supervisors always allowed him to pick his own research topics and research processes, and encouraged him to think and find the answers by himself.
"When it comes to materials R&D, I think 3M has the right approach, since many successful materials were developed rather accidentally," Yeh avers.
Finding Innovation in Failed Products
Even Yeh's ACF was something he derived quite unintentionally from a product he had thought to be a failure and had considered abandoning.
When developing new products many Taiwanese companies first dismantle the products of industry leaders and then try to follow in their footsteps, but Yeh insists on developing every single step himself. He believes real technological breakthroughs and innovations are only possible if a company has built a solid R&D base and accumulates experience and know-how. "Admittedly it's more difficult, but during the R&D process I'll come across all kinds of problems. After solving them, I know why they occurred in the first place and also clearly understand where to make improvements," says Yeh in stating his research philosophy.
A veteran technician in charge of the solder masking process at an FPC board maker explains that in order to cut costs and raise production process efficiency, manufacturers have always hoped to shorten the drying time. But only TeamChem was willing to spend several months on repeated trials to help develop a customized product. As a result, TeamChem developed a quick-drying solder mask that reduced the baking time during the masking process from one hour to 10 minutes.
TeamChem is also the only mask maker that is able to satisfy the severe requirements of HTC. The smart phone maker, known for its attention to impeccable design, demanded that the ductile solder mask inside its smart phones be the same Ferrari red as the internal plastic frame, even though neither was visible on the outside. While TeamChem's rivals tried for more than half a year, but were not able to come up with the right shade of red, TeamChem delivered the desired hue to HTC's FPC board suppliers within four months. This Ferrari red solder mask is three times as expensive as ordinary reds.
As our interview nears the end, two South Korean customers patiently wait for Yeh outside the factory in the scorchingly hot summer sun. One is the former general manager of the chemicals department at LG Taiwan. He hopes to become the distributor for TeamChem ductile solder mask in South Korea.
"There's really a lot of room for materials chemistry," declares TeamChem general manager Sunny Han, who became a co-investor in 2007. Seeing that the biggest dilemma in Taiwan's ICT supply chain was that its most crucial, most profitable components lay beyond the control of Taiwanese people, he quit his high-profile job as global brand director for well-known computer maker ASUS without batting an eye, switching from thin-margin electonics assembly to high-margin electronics materials.
But don't assume that TeamChem builds its R&D achievements on the back of long, exhausting work hours like the majority of Taiwan's high-tech enterprises. From day one of the company, TeamChem employees have worked regular eight-to-five jobs. No one is encouraged to stay in the office or lab past 5:30 p.m.
"If I work overtime every day until 11 p.m., I'm truly not able to be innovative," reveals Yeh. Having spent some 15 years in the United States, he observes that most Taiwanese enterprises want executive talent, whereas Americans admire dreamers.
Perhaps Taiwan's future model worker will be a dreamer like Yeh, who is able to churn out innovation.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz