Oral History Interview with John B. Fenn, Jr. (JF)
Conducted by Liz Josephson (LJ)
John B. Fenn, Jr. (left) and Liz Josephson (right) at the
47th Society of Vacuum Coaters Annual Technical Conference
LJ: Hi. I’m Liz Josephson of Applied Films, and I’m here to interview John Fenn from Fenn Again, who has been in the industry since . . .
JF: Since 1977.
LJ: It’s April 28, 2004, and we’re at the 47th Annual Society of Vacuum Coaters Conference in Dallas, Texas. I think it’s appropriate that we’re doing John’s interview here. Last year, you were the Nathaniel Sugerman Award winner. This year, his father spoke as the Plenary Speaker (and a Nobel Prize Winner). I think it’s appropriate that we had three generations of John Fenns here to celebrate that occasion as well.
First of all I’d like a little history on where you were born, where you went to school, and where you were brought up, before we get into your impact on the industry.
JF: I was born in Brea, Kentucky, in 1945. I went to high school in Princeton, New Jersey, where my Dad was a professor. Then I went to Tuss University and got my BS in Chemistry in 1967, then onto Perdue University where I got a PhD in Physical Chemistry in 1972. I then did a year of post-doc at UCLA under Dr. Howard Reese.
LJ: OK. I guess that leads us up to your introduction into vacuum coating?
JF: My introduction into the vacuum world actually happened when I was in high school when I did some summer work and went to visit my Dad’s molecular beam lab periodically. That’s where I really got interested in vacuum. I did some vacuum-related research when I was a junior in college, where I learned the problems that air leaks can cause because I was actually trying to figure out how much hydrogen could be held by a mass of palladium sponge. It turns out that when oxygen hits the plate on a sponge it tends to explode. So, I had to make my own vacuum line, and I learned very quickly that you don’t want any air leaks in something like that.
LJ: Now from your transition, obviously your father had a big influence in your life, with his technical background and has done quite a bit of work in the biochemistry side of the industry. Was there anyone else who had an impact on you and influenced you into getting into the vacuum world?
JF: No, not really. It was somewhat accidental. When I left Tuss University with my PhD in Solid-State Chemistry, and I went to work with Howard Reese at UCLA, we were studying nucleation phenomena, which is not in the vacuum field. Then I went to work for a company called Xonics, where they hired me as a material research engineer. They were doing a special type of X-ray imaging using ions. At that that time, I became exposed to transparent thin film coatings because they needed that kind of material on the plastics in order to keep the ions there while they were developing them. So because of that, we got to know a company called Cirus and Entrax who was making a very thin film of gold on plastic, which they had developed in the early 1960s under a research and development contract with Ford Motor Company.
I left Xonics after two years and joined another company that was looking at ultra-sonic heart scanners, a company called Second Foundation. Unfortunately, it didn’t develop as quickly as we thought, and the company basically ran out of money. So, I had to go find a job, having two kids, a dog, a house, and a wife. I answered an advertisement from Cirus and Entrax who was looking for, quote “a dog-and-pony show physicist.” I answered out of curiosity. They were looking for someone to do some technical and marketing development for this transparent film that they had developed, which I had first used at Xonics. Since I had used it at Xonics they thought I had some kind of insight to how it could be used. So they hired me.
That was my very first exposure to industrial roll coating. Bill Kittler was the group. He ran the coater—he did everything else. I came in, and we began to develop markets and applications for thin film transparent coatings that were vacuum deposited.
LJ: Did you want to continue with where you went from there?
JF: Sure. At Cirus, they had a very good product; it was gold. But because it was god it had a yellowish cast to it; it wasn’t completely transparent. Its transparency peaked at about 5500 and fell off on both the red and the blue side. For a lot of people, that was objectionable. They didn’t like the color. So, Cirus embarked upon developing the first, as far as I know, roll-to-roll ITO coating. They originally used powder, and then they transferred to a little 12-inch roll coater. Their first customer was Serrason, who wanted a more transparent film for their X-rays because radiologists are very picky as to what they look at. They’re so used to the blue-tinted photographic films that they wanted that exact same background because they’re looking for very minute changes in density when they are looking at X-rays, particularly things like mammograms.
We worked together, Bill Kittler and I and the Serrason Research Group, led by Burt Leven. We came up with a process and a product based on indium tin oxide, which is a water-light neutral conductive film. We began selling that probably in 1978 or 1979. Trouble is, when you try to sell a transparent film, a lot of people in those days didn’t know what to do with it. You couldn’t even tell it was there because it was transparent. So I was asked by the marketing group at Cirus and Entrax to come up with a way of demonstrating that we have a film that is both transparent and conductive and can be used in some kinds of applications.
Well I thought for a while and came up with the idea in the trade booth to put in the front console a little tic-tac-toe game where we had two players. Each had a little board that was transparent and backlit by a light bulb and a display in the middle. You touched the film down and it closed the switch. Actually, that was one of the first developments of what is now the touch-panel market. It was a very simple touch panel, but everybody got excited about the panel instead of the film, so we decided as a company to start building touch panels. We became our own best customer and developed a division called Trans Flex that built and sold touch panels that was later sold off by Serrason five of six years later. That’s where we got our start, basically developing a market to use our film because we had no other places to use it.
In 1983, Ian Ritchey, Darrel Stadert, and myself, all former employees of Serrason, got together and decided that the industry wasn’t really taking advantage of the capabilities of sputtering, which is really an inorganic synthesis process. You can develop materials’ layers with properties that you can’t do any other way. So we got together, raised some capitol from Ray-Chem Corporation. It didn’t hurt that Burt Leven was Head of Business Development at Ray-Chem at that time. They funded us to start a sputtering company based on sputtering roll-to-roll. The company was called Andes. We did that in 1983. We got our first lab coater in 1984; it was a 12-inch two-station coater. We got our first production machine, I believe, the next year from Leybold.
LJ: I noted that a lot of those dates and timelines in your history and your resume, which I assume will be attached to this interview some way. You already talked about the first roll sputtering machines that were developed around the 1980s from Leybold. In 1991, you wrote on a history of ITO, which was also given in. . .
JF: It was given in Boston.
LJ: It was at a Boston SVC meeting. You noted that the quality had changed in 1991, and this was impacted by the LCD market. Would you comment on that a little bit?
JF: Exactly. In 1987, Ray-Chem decided that we were not one of their core competences and actually asked us to sell ourselves off to someone who was willing to invest more. They were very happy with us; we had made profit and developed some good products. We just basically didn’t fit into the strategy that they decided they were going to use to go forward.
So, we looked around and had noticed that Courtaulds, an English company, had bought Martin Processing, which was one of our competitors, and had paid a fairly nice price for them. So sought out the American representatives of Courtaulds and asked them if they were interested in any further investment. In fact, they were because Martin Processing was doing a lot of industrial vacuum coating, both metallizing and sputtering, but they were doing it mainly for window films and other simple metallic coatings, whereas Andes had specialized in basically reactive sputtering, multilayer coatings that had different performances in different markets. They were interested in getting into those markets. So they bought us, and we became part of what the next year became Courtaulds Performance Films, headquartered in Martinsville, Virginia.
What was happening in the ITO business was, we first started out with reactive sputtering where we used indium tin alloys and used oxygen in the working gas of the vacuum chamber and oxidized to ITO. At that time, the quality of what is now called the ceramic target was very poor. It had fairly low density; it cracked a lot; the bonding techniques were very bad; and it was very difficult to use. So we stayed with the reactive process because we did a study that showed that there wasn’t much difference in the quality of the films between a reactive one and a well-made ceramic one; it was just that the targets were not high quality enough. The liquid crystal display industry really started to take off in the late 1980s, and they needed ITO film as well. They were using very high volumes, and the roll-to-roll coating business didn’t have nearly the same dollar volume or the same square foot volume as the LCD business did. So they started pounding on the ceramic target manufacturers to get better and better. And they did. It became easier for a company such as us to ride the back of the larger industry and benefit from the qualities of the improved targets. The other thing that it helped is that there was a significant change in the design of the power supplies—again, driven by not only the LCD industry but other sputtering industries as well. The power supplies became much more stable and much more resistant to arcing and suppressed arcs. Those two things I think were the most significant developments that helped the roll coating business get improved products.
We also were being pushed heavily by the customer; they wanted better and better products. When they first got ITO, they thought it was great that they have something that was transparent and conductive. Then they wanted it with higher visible light transmission, less defects, better control and resistance—you know, all of those minor things that customers seem to want. The customers actually pushed us to make improved products.
LJ: I think that brings us up to some of the stuff that you’ve talked about that are in the current market, your concerns about ITO and the availability and the quality of ITO now and where you seeing it going in the future. I know you have some big concerns about it as a transparent conductive oxide and as a supply chain.
JF: Yes. I started another company, called Neovac in 1997. I started that company with Bill Kittler and a Canadian company called Cellplast. The reason for starting that was that I’d left Cortals Performance Films, which later became CP Films, and had gone to work for Leybold Technologies in the United States to sell and service vacuum coating equipment. During that period I realized that the ITO manufacturers were really not making any improvements. They had pretty well settled on a particular kind of film and really weren’t pushing the envelope to add performance and better quality and better customer service on the ITO films. So in 1997, Cellplast was looking for a market to invest in and I was looking for something to do. Bill Kittler decided he would join us.
The concept of Neovac was that we would design, develop, and sell thin film coatings using vacuum coating processes, but we didn’t want to sell a commodity. The normal, standard ITO companies had now started to become commodity and price sensitive. So we chose to push the envelope of ITO and try to improve its performance both in terms of linearity and transparency and reflectance. In 1988 we developed our first product, which we called CET films (conductive enhanced transmission ITO), and pushed the total transmission from the standard 88% for most ITO coatings up to 92%. This was widely accepted, but what was happening in the mean time was that other companies were starting to make ITO in the standard products and started to become a commodity-based business. People were pushing price and taking up profit margins and it just made it harder and harder to compete.
Then other markets, such as LCD and possibly flexible photovoltaics in the next few years, started growing and growing, and the availability of indium began to become more and more scarce. At the same time, history does repeat itself. In the 1980s the aluminum metallizing companies saw this happen. The market went to the film producers as well as the end users, leaving the toll coater or the converter in the middle with not much to do. ITO began to do that as well and is starting to do that right now. I am concerned that the market for the converter, the stand-alone roll-to-roll specialty sputtering coaters, is going to migrate to the major film manufacturers, which has already happened in Japan (Torray for example). To the end user, which has also happened in Japan (Gunsay who makes touch panels and now a company called Wintech in Taiwan has an ITO roll coater), so it looks like the stand-alone market for ITO is become a commodity and is going to not be available for a specialty roll coater. That’s my concern.
In the United States, where there isn’t really much new development taking place in the roll-to-roll coating business for developing new transparent conductors or improving the existing ones. So, I have some concerns as to the near-term health of the industry, although I think that there will be some new materials developed that will replace ITO that will be cheaper, perhaps have lower resistance. One of the issues of ITO on plastic films is that you can only achieve about half of the voltaic activity that you can on glass. The reason for that is that glass is coated at above 200°C, whereas the working temperature of most plastic films doesn’t exceed 150°C. We can not coat at the temperatures that glass coaters coat at, therefore we have amorphous coatings that have lower voltaic activities and therefore higher sheet resistance.
Many of the markets now are striving for sheet resistances at levels that are very hard to do on plastic films and therefore become very expensive.
LJ: I think in your history you also mentioned both of the companies you started (Andes and Neovac). I think if you look at what’s happened to them over the course since you’ve left, they’ve both been acquired by bigger companies. Both are part of much larger companies than they were designed for. One of my questions is (and you touched on this), do you think that without new developments that you don’t see a place for a Neovac or an Andes in the future?
JF: Well there will be niche markets. There will be shorter custom runs, which the larger equipment and the larger companies can’t really afford to do. They’ve got machines that are 48, 56, 62, to 80 inches wide. They can’t afford to do a 1000-square-foot run for a company looking for a specialty custom film. Also, the larger a company gets, the flexible it tends to become with respect to responding to short custom runs, development runs, and things like that. So I think that, properly organized, a stand-alone vacuum coating house that specializes in shorter, more highly engineered, higher performing coatings will have a place. One of the reasons that it’s very difficult to get into that industry and one of the reasons why larger companies are the ones that seem to be getting into it, is the cost of capitol equipment. To place a new decent-sized ITO specialty sputter film roll coater—with the support equipment like cleanroom, slitter, quality control lab, and process development lab, and machine shop—you’re looking at a total investment, if you star new, of $8 to $10 million. So, you’ve got to find markets where you can get that return on investment.
The larger U.S. companies who have bought the smaller companies all have internal requirements for sputter roll-coated films. They make window films, flex circuits, and touch panels and other things. They have an internal market that can help support the overhead and the cost of running a vacuum machine. Then you have the difficulty, which all of American industry seems to be having, the manufacturing of the parts that use transparent conductive films or other sputter-coat films is all migrating to the Far East. That’s because that’s where they make all the products. And so following the final product that is being made are the people who provide the starting products. There’s a growth in the Far East where companies in countries such as Taiwan and Korea are seriously investigating the opportunities of getting into providing ITO and other films to the Far East. Well that puts people in the United States at a disadvantage because we have to worry about freight and supply chains that are longer and things like that. It’s becoming more and more difficult to provide starting materials from the United States to the markets that are now in Taiwan, Japan, and Korea and starting to grow very rapidly in Mainland China.
LJ: What about domestic growth? Have you seen a need for products in the United States using specialty vacuum coated films? Is there any future there right now?
JF: Currently it is very flat. The larger touch panel manufacturers in the United States were Elo Touch, and at one time Micro Touch, which was bought by 3M (and 3M has internal ITO capabilities). The other big market in the ITO transparent conductive world for roll-to-roll coating was in electroluminescent lamps. That is starting to get smaller because the end use of the electroluminescent lamp was mainly backlighting portable displays such as the cell phones and PDAs and things like that, and now they’ve all gone full color. An electroluminescent back lamp, although it does have some advantages, just can’t produce enough light to illuminate a full-color LCD. So they are starting to back away from the use of ELs in everything but the monochrome phone display. The monochrome phone is very rapidly dieing. I don’t think that Japan sold a single monochrome cell phone last year. The same thing is happening in Korea; over 80% of all phones made there are full color.
So you asked what was the growth going to be like in the United States? I have great faith in technology and I think that there might be some new use that we haven’t even thought of yet that will come on and provide us some areas where we can develop new markets. I can’t tell you right now what they’re going to be.
LJ: Hopefully by the time they are interviewing me we will know that! Back to the vacuum industry, you’ve been around a while and seen a lot of people come and go throughout your history of involvement. What do you think has driven most of them to either get in or get out? What brings people in? You’ve expressed some big concerns about the industry in addition to your concerns about ITO. You’ve said this industry does not represent the full range of ages and activities. There’s a gap of knowledgeable people coming up.
JF: That’s particularly true in the roll-coating business, at least in the specialty roll-coating business. I was glad to hear at this show as a matter of fact that the attendance in the large area glass coating has gone up, and that there is actually a lot of bright new engineers starting to work for the large US large area glass companies. That’s a good sign. But it’s hard in specialty roll coating; the talent pool is very shallow. There’re not many people out there who can contribute right away. You have to teach them all. It becomes difficult to develop processes engineers and techs in that business because it’s a different business than glass coating, although we use many of the same tools.
What brings people to the industry? I was brought here because I thought sputtering was a very novel technology that I wanted to take advantage of. It’s kind of intoxicating once you get into it. It is a very interesting business. Unfortunately, many of the vacuum coating products that we are talking about are going offshore. A good friend of mine had a hard tool coating business. The tools are now being made in the Far East, and you can’t justify shipping them here to be hard coated. So they just bring the hard coating business into the tool manufacturing plant and provide the whole thing. So he’s lost a lot of business to the Far East and he thinks that’s going to happen across the board. I don’t think glass will go because it’s too hard to ship glass. It’s too heavy to ship much more than 1,000 miles or so. So as long as they are continuing construction both in the housing industry and in commercial businesses the use of vacuum coatings on glass will continue to grow. As the public becomes more and more concerned about energy conservation and things like that, then I think the use of thin film coatings for providing protection from ultra-violet light and for providing protection from infrared heating from the Sun, I think that whole market will continue to grow.
The other market that has some real potential market that has real growth possibilities is the photovoltaic industry. That’s one where there is a lot of activity in the Unites States for start up companies. Hopefully that will be one that will grow and keep here in the States for a while as a viable product.
What keeps people here at the SVC? I think it’s the only show that I’m aware of that directly services the industry that has to actually make parts. It’s the one place where you can come and see all of the vendors—I think we had 120 this year or something like that. So if you want to be very efficient and make very good use of your valuable time you can come here and go to the exhibit for two days and meet practically every vendor in the vacuum coating industry at one time. There’s also a lot of cross fertilization in the different technologies, between glass coating, roll coating, decorative coating surprisingly enough, and all these different technologies you can come here and talk to these people who aren’t in your industry so therefore they’re not afraid to share some information with you because you’re not a direct competitor. But we’re all overall in the same business; we all use thermal evaporation and sputtering, PEM, optical measuring devices. So you can get a lot of information here just talking in the hall. I think the networking aspects of the SVC are one of its major strengths.’
LJ: As an aside, professionally and privately, since this is about John Fenn, what’s your proudest moment professionally?
JF: My proudest moment was actually the recognition by the Society when I got the Sugerman award. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend so my proudest moment was passed privately. Getting that recognition from your colleagues and your equals was just a wonderful moment in my life.
The exciting times were starting up the two companies. Those were fun. It wasn’t work; it was fun. It only becomes work when it’s no longer entertaining and fun.
LJ: What about privately? Anything you want to share?
JF: Well there’s my family. My three kids are some of my most exciting moments. Recently, one of the more exciting moments was when my father got the Nobel Prize, and I got to go to the ceremony in Stockholm and see the whole thing. It was just absolutely amazing.
LJ: Any comments about your kids? Have any of them followed your footsteps? Did they see their father and grandfather put in too many long hours?
JF: No. Actually, it was just assumed that I would become a chemist. Half way through college, I told my Dad that I was going to become a philosopher. He said, “That’s fine, but how are you going to make any money?” I realized that he was probably right. But I believe in letting teenagers in particular (and even children younger than that) to start to make their own decisions. My son was highly attracted to music and culture and photography. He became an ethnomusicologist, which is a branch of anthropology. We accused him of picking anthropology because it was the first major in the course booklet that didn’t have Saturday classes. But he actually does love music and has gone on to get his PhD in ethnomusicology just this year. I’m quite proud of that.
Both of my daughters didn’t have much interest in science. One is working as a business marketing administrator, and the other is teaching grammar school—which I think is just as valuable as being a chemist.
LJ: Is there anything else you wanted to say about the future of roll coating or other topic? I know you wanted to express your concerns as a historical reference so that you could say, “See? I said it.”
JF: I believe that everything has a definite lifetime. Markets and technologies only last for so long. We’ve witnessed the peak of specialty roll coating and now perhaps we’re witnessing that there are other things that are replacing it. Conductive polymers might replace it. They’re looking at different technologies where the kinds of products we make might not necessarily be required. As I said, there are always going to be niche markets. Maybe other markets that we’re not addressing right now (one of them is bioengineering and medical applications), there’s really not much being done in sputtered films and thin films by our industry in those markets, even though there might be other people serving them. We have the potential development of flexible displays, and if that really takes off there will be an increased demand for transparent conductive flexible films, barrier films, RFI/EMI filtering films, and things like PDP (plasma displays) need filters. There are 40- to 50-inch diagonal screens—that’s a lot of square feet per plasma display, and they are increasing the amount of displays they’re making every year by 300,000 to 600,000. It’s incredible! If they go to plastic, which has got advantages over the glass filters they are currently using, that’s an incredibly large market right there. Maybe we’re just in a lull and hopefully something will come back that will trigger further growth.
LJ: I certainly hope so! Thank you for your time and insights.