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Process Innovation

Processes that are unique to a company can be a powerful tool for boosting reputation and gaining an advantage over competitors, and can take various forms ranging from synthetic routes to completely new manufacturing concepts. I’d be happy to hear from you if your interests lie in this direction.

Developing unique production processes

The most innovative products require unique components that are either unobtainable, or uneconomic to make using conventional processes. Developing such process innovations can be very rewarding – they can create novel components that extend product longevity, allow efficiencies that boost profitability, or even be the ‘product’ itself.

Moreover, they erect high technological barriers to competitors, because although IP about product design can sometimes be replicated and/or circumnavigated to some degree, proprietary manufacturing methods can firmly remain behind closed doors.

Nevertheless, making a judgement call on whether or not the investment is worth the effort, and how to protect the innovation once it’s developed, is a complex area that depends on many factors. This is an area of personal interest and experience, and one I am happy to advise on.

Finding new routes to synthetically challenging components

Mature products can benefit greatly from process innovations that allow access to formulation components considered inaccessible (even if already known). But new formulations must also be ‘designed for manufacture’, and I can use my experience to help you develop reactive monomer formulations that are viable at-scale.

Example: 
Direct synthesis of cyanoacrylates

The process technology used to manufacture cyanoacrylates (CAs) relies on thermally cracking pre-polymers – a slow and synthetically inflexible approach that hasn’t fundamentally changed in 70 years.

To address this challenge, a team that I led while initially working at Henkel (and subsequently at Afinitica) developed alternative intensified processes that enabled rapid access to standard monomers as well as monomers with additional reactivity, opening up new possibilities for novel formulations in this mature field. 

I particularly liked to get involved in the lab, working with skilled colleagues to improve existing technology – an interest that continues to the present day.

Developing processes for enhanced product performance

Combining physical or chemical phenomena in unexpected ways can create the basis for new ways of accessing a product that open the doors to improved performance.

An example I was deeply involved with is described below, in which a novel process created the basis for an entirely new approach to conductive adhesive tapes. This is also a nice example of how process innovation can enable entry into high-value-added markets dominated by strong incumbents, no matter how impossible this may initially appear to the dynamic new entrant.

Example: 
Ordered anisotropically conductive films

Countless electronic devices rely upon anisotropically conducting adhesives to bond the conductive tracks on device displays to strip connectors on the motherboard. These adhesives must only permit conductivity through the bond-line, and not across it, which is achieved by randomly dispersing gold-coated polymer microspheres on transfer tapes that thermoset when heat-sealed. 

However, as the resolution of displays has increased and the space between conductive tracks has decreased, the occasional presence of particle clusters increases the chance of bridging along the bond-line, causing short circuits. Ordering the particles using magnetic fields is an appealing solution, but because the particles are non-magnetic, we needed to think creatively. 

The solution, described in a series of patents (the latest of which is this one), lies in developing an idea first published in the scientific literature. As a team leader during my time at Henkel, we used the non-magnetic microspheres to displace a ferrofluid, and took advantage of the magnetic moments induced in the microspheres to produce forces that allowed their location to be controlled. The ultimate result was a reel-to-reel manufacturing process for a new particle-aligned product with highly differentiated characteristics. See also M.J. Kelly (ed.), Functional Materials in New Millennium Systems, 1997, p. 75.

Exploiting reversible functionality

Achieving reversibility in a product’s function is an excellent way of providing flexibility in use, and one we are all familiar with through products such as Post-It® notes and Velcro® hook-and-loop strips.

However, the same concept can also be applied to manufacturing processes, and exploiting reversible phenomena in already cured polymer materials is an interesting field that I have some experience with.

Example: 
Reversible bonding for silicon wafer thinning

Multi-chip packages (MCPs) are now commonly used in memory and portable electronic devices to increase capacity, and this requires stacking ultra-thin silicon chips, typically produced from a single 300 mm wafer about 750 µm thick.

To produce chips that are suitably thin (100 µm but increasingly even less), the wafer, already scored into ‘dies’ and printed with circuitry, is secured in place with a holding tool, and ‘thinned’ by grinding it from its reverse side. The resulting wafer is flexible and very delicate, and must be released from the holding tool gently before it is diced. As the need for ultra-thin wafers grows, how can this release be achieved routinely and reliably? As described in this patent, while I was employed at Henkel we designed a shape-memory polymer for use as part of a novel process technology for reversible bonding. The polymer is formed in a flat film at raised temperature, which becomes its ‘remembered’ shape. Having been warmed, the film is lowered onto the wafer, with the polymer sinking into the grid pattern created by the scoring process. When the film cools, the film is thus physically locked onto the wafer, which can now be thinned with confidence. Afterwards, gentle warming commands the film to remember its original flat shape, releasing the wafer.

'Processes as products'

Whereas it is prudent to keep manufacturing processes secret, in some cases a newly developed process may be more convenient for the end-user, or help enhance throughput, reduce costs, or improve product performance.

In such cases, the process itself becomes the product, and I have experience in various aspects of this type of innovation, including the unusual example below.

Example: 
Robots for plant grafting

I once superglued a long-stemmed yellow rose onto a red rose bush as a practical joke on my wife, and she was obviously mystified by this unusual horticultural phenomenon! But it gave me an idea…

Market research revealed that industrial nurseries often use clips to secure grafts, in highly labour-intensive manual or semi-automated processes. So, during my time at Henkel, we investigated whether medical-grade cyanoacrylates (CAs), which are already approved for sutureless bonding in human and veterinary applications, could be used in a robot-enabled setup instead.

The result was a patented robot that aligned cut shoots and rootstocks, and secured the cutting with a drop of plant-grafting adhesive. This was then flash-cured, and simultaneously cooled to prevent cell damage from polymerisation exotherms. Like subscription-model inkjet printers, this is an interesting example of a process innovation for end-users that leads to demand for a product line.

Developing unique production processes

Process innovations can be a fruitful line of enquiry, and one I’d be pleased to help you with.
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