Oral History Interview with Alan (“Mike”) Plaisted
Conducted by Ric Shimshock (RS), April 2003
RS: Here we are at the 46th Annual Society of Vacuum Coaters Conference in San Francisco, California. It’s the last day of another successful conference. People are pretty excited about the things they’ve learned and the people they got to meet and get reacquainted with. We have here Alan “Mike” Plaisted from Soleras, and a former president of the SVC, and a key member of the Society. We would like to get an oral history review for the archives.
Welcome. We hope to get a little bit of perspective of some of the different things you’ve witnessed over the many years you have contributed to the Society. Maybe you can give a little feel about your background and training and how you were educated for this field.
MP: OK. My background is basically farm oriented. I came out of Maine. I graduated from the University of Main as a general engineer. I minored in Medicine and Philosophy. I went to work for Sylvania. My first job was in the lighting applications laboratory. I went from there to transformer design, and from there to high-field strength magnetics for linear accelerators. I left that and went with refractory metals, and at that particular point, I was introduced to vacuum because one of the refractory metals products was coils, and so I became part of the tungsten coil, aluminum clip, and lacquer world, which was really the decorative activity at the time. Most application of vacuum was lamp making, radio tube making, picture tube making, and the decorative applications (lipstick tubes, toy pistols, etc.). That was the business I entered into, selling tungsten coils. That was my introduction to the SVC.
I will say it was 90% either automotive or closures. It was a bottle top or something on an automobile that twisted, lifted, or closed something. I went from there into venture capital with GTE, which owned Sylvania at the time, and proceeded to have two or three years there doing “technical due diligence” with the venture capital group. I left there and went with Ulvac Corporation, which was capital equipment out of Japan, and I helped establish the U.S. group. Nine years of that was enough. My Board of Directors was Japanese—and with all due respect—it was like having an orchestra with only a piano and I was a trombone musician! It was difficult to make music in the United States. So then I went out on my own and then Soleras, and I’ve been at that for what seems forever.
My background in sputtering targets started also at GTE in Exeter, New Hampshire. We were into chromium and hot-pressed metallics for roll coaters. So, I began to expand my capabilities. But, my “101” was tungsten coils.
RS: So the early days were these evaporation systems?
MP: Totally evaporation.
RS: Was Sylvania set up as a manufacturing line; you were engineers supporting that activity?
MP: I went in as sales. I was drawn in as Sales Manager because I went into sales in the magnetics end of it and got transferred over. I was always into new products. I was involved in Market Development. I went over to the Exeter, New Hampshire group with the idea that we were in refractor metals, but what more could we do? I got into the emissive source group, and then we went after tungsten in every way, chromium, hot-pressed chrome, hot-pressed intermetallic bolts for the web coaters. That was “Day 101” for me. But I was already involved in the SVC before sputtering even became an item.
The first sputtering I can remember is probably Gillette razor blades. When the chrome and the platinum razor blade came out that was the entry into the field of sputtering for me.
RS: What sort of targets did they need? Were they large-size targets?
MP: No, they were finger. There was a magnet on the inside, very simple, and terribly secret. And thus remains the “flavor of the soup” ever since on razor blades. It’s always a secret. The SVC started with the tungsten coils, and because I was an engineer and bitched so much about the engineering that they gave me the engineering responsibility. I solved a lot of problems.
From there from that activity into venture capital, and from there to Ulvac Corporation.
RS: How did you hear about the Society of Vacuum Coaters? Was that one of the big trade shows you attended.
MP: No. When I first started, the SVC was run by GE. What had happened was that the AVS in Boston had an activity, and people were coming to the AVS meeting, but they were doing bottle caps and things of that type. Everything that was discussed there except how to make money. So, twelve people basically went to the coil suppliers (GE, Tungsten Suppliers, Sylvania, etc.), then they went to the aluminum clip people, and then they went to the lacquer people. They said we’ll have a small meeting, and show us how to make money with vacuum.
RS: So that was purpose of the first meeting of the SVC?
MP: I don’t think it was the SVC at that time. When I came in, it was still just coils, clips, and lacquer. The meetings were almost always held in Detroit. It was the automotive and closure (bottle top) people mostly, but the automotive people ran it. They drove it. And that went on for quite some time.
RS: So you tried to find a home in AVS, and it didn’t fit. So you guys started the SVC.
MP: It was the people just in front of me. They just got a group of people together. The average number of papers was probably 18 or 20.
RS: That was in a single day?
MP: It started as one day, and then it went to two. But then my career got into the sputtering target bit. As I began in the web coating for the intermetallic source, it just so happened the industry began. The semiconductor came in, but I was never a player in semiconductors.
On a call I got one time, they asked me if I made intermetallics. I said, “Yes,” but I couldn’t spell it. In those days, the answer was always “yes.”
RS: That is a good answer.
MP: It is the only one to go with. That more or less is my career. Now at Soleras, we look at 19 different industries, and we sell into nine of them, plus we watch the other five. They will bloom someday.
RS: It’s a global supply operation, right?
MP: Yes, we export about 30% of what we make. The interesting thing about being a global supplier is that we have terms domestically of 1% discount and 30-days payment. That is the same terms we offer all over the world. There are few bad debts. For some reason, most of the bad debts are all in the United States. We have not had a bad debt outside of the United States, which is unusual—slow pay yes, but not no pay.
The thing that took Soleras international is the compact disc industry, which we followed. It went everywhere, and that led us all over the world. Once you’re there, you do other things.
RS: Can we go back to those 12 people who started the SVC? Who were some of those names?
MP: Of course the one we remember most is Nat Sugerman. I can’t recall them all; there was a guy called Mayer. But the thing about the SVC was at the beginning maybe about 80% of the people who attended were owners. People from GE, people from Sylvania, people from Red spot (the clip people). No wait; GE and Sylvania were the only corporate people. GE supported the company by supplying the resources to manage the Society and to make the arrangements and that type of thing. The vendors and automotive people were the only people there who really weren’t owners or brothers or uncles of owners or something of the company that was attending. The automotive people obviously were not, but a great many of the closure people and the decorative people were owners. I’d say 80% of the attendees there, except the automotive people, were either the owner or crawled out of the same bed in the morning.
RS: So is that where you think some of the strengths we see in the SVC (the networking, the working together) came from in those early days?
MP: I think the dissatisfaction of the attendees in the beginning was that they knew so little about vacuum, and if you talk to some of the people who were part of NRC (National Research Corporation) (which is now part of Varian, but it goes back to Norton and then goes very very far back). In operations they would open the chamber door, and would have a bright shiny load of material, or they would have something that looked like mud. The people who owned and ran the company didn’t know why. They were not technical, they were sales people or people in jewelry trade or similar. They were asking why on Monday when they opened they chamber door was everything bright, but why on Tuesday was everything black or brown? And that was a simple, stupid question and yet they didn’t get answers.
So the demand made on the lacquer people and the coil people and the aluminum clip people was that these operations owned chambers, and it was critical that they make money. They said this group of suppliers is obligated to show us how to control our process and get our yield up on our product.
I think that has always remained a fundamental focus of SVC. The people who are doing coatings come here and expect to be kept out of trouble and learn improvements. Nat Sugerman, who the award is named after, it was interesting that he commented one time that he never went home from the SVC without changing something, little or big. He always went home and realized that he could do a little better here or there, or could stop doing something. The big thing was that the Japanese always criticized this meeting because there was no focus. They wanted to see a meeting on semiconductors; they wanted to see a meeting on optics; they wanted to see a meeting on tire-tread coating; you name it. Only over the past 5 years have the Japanese whom I’m involved with begun to realize that this is an exchange forum. Everybody in the glass industry watches everybody else in the glass industry, so there’s not a great deal for you to learn when you come here except from noncompeting industries.
RS: It is the same with the web coating.
MP: But, if you have somebody coating a piece of metal the size of a piece of glass, but with a different process, they have all the same handling problems. They have a different process, which may easily transfer over. You also have the metal guy who suddenly realizes that he could do glass. That’s what happens here. You look over the back fence into the neighbor’s yard, and you see them doing something that you could do, or you see that they do something without doing what you do. You suddenly realize that you also maybe could bypass a process. I think that is something that happens here continuously.
I don’t think much is learned here when someone who comes from an industry, say the compact disc industry, and only talks to people in the same industry. Companies send people here for training in the basics and in specific areas. But I think most of the people who come here benefit from watching an activity that’s similar, but not a duplicate (doesn’t serve their market) but uses their tools.
I make the point it’s like a piano. Everybody has got a piano, but everybody’s got different music. You suddenly realize that your piano could easily play this music or that music, based a little bit on how you learned to play the piano—but you’ve got the piano. Everybody’s got a piano. Some have a big one; some people have little ones; some people even have an organ with five tiers of keyboards—yet we all work the same chromatic scale. It’s interesting to watch people become very surprised when they realize that somebody has the same hardware they have, and yet they serve a totally different industry using quite similar processes. So, we tend to get buried in our own discipline and problems.
RS: So from the early days, the education and the networking have been key to what SVC’s focus has been?
MP: Networking has been key. The education started at the lowest conceivable level. I think the first lesson had to be that vacuum is spelled with two “Us” and it went from there. But you had maintenance people and process people who had never used it [vacuum]. One of the things that people forget about is that during World War II (we’re talking the 40s, and with the beginning of the SVC we’re talking about the 50s and 60s), one of the big things was the Kinney pump. The Kinney pump was shipped to England to make radar tubes. It was so critical that they put pumps in different ships in convoys. Education has been a lot like Genesis with a lot of begetting.
RS: So it was a key component then?
MP: It was a key component to making tubes. It was a good vacuum pump. The Kinney and Company asked how the hell do you get them to England? The answer was separate them to make damn sure that at least one got there. Well, that’s not so far away—my time starts in the 1950s—but that’s not a long way from 1943–1944. And if you realize that prior to that there were optical lens rotating system pumps on destroyers and that type of thing (but that was a niche). All of a sudden here comes the vacuum coating industry and tube industry with the things you would use to do thin film coatings. The basic bricks were being made and engineers began to build systems then.
Those threads of history, I think were coming together to form the industry somewhere in that period. At the time it wasn’t apparent, but as you look back now you realize that everything was coming in to form the fabric of the industry. I hold the semiconductor industry as separate from the ones serviced by the SVC—it’s another world.
RS: What’s the difference?
MP:Money. I would say money and attitude. Historically in my experience when I go into a semiconductor activity and solving problems, I have the problem and the customer has the money. The theory is that you get rid of problems by throwing money at them. And in the industries where we are here [in the SVC], you sit down and we have a problem. Maybe I throw money at it, and maybe the customer does too. It’s a balanced attack on the problem for a fast low-cost solution.
It’s a “we” thing with vacuum problems. From the supplier’s side, you are very handicapped trying to solve the problem because you don’t know the process. The process may not be critical in solving the problem, but you as a supplier can’t solve it if you don’t have the knowledge of what the task is.
It’s like the piano. They keyboard has to be flat; it can’t be circular. I would say that the suppliers are not as smart as they are supposed to be; but that is because they aren’t taught. One of the reasons you’re not taught is because “it’s none of your damn business.”
RS: So “throw it over the wall and send me some more, and that will be good.”
MP: And “do it again and don’t make the same mistake.” In the semiconductor industry, I would not want to go to work in the morning and do the work they do. Some of the stuff they’re doing it’s incredible. But that doesn’t mean I have to be harnessed it.
I drove through Borax, California (the 20-mule team borax), and thought “I don’t want to be one of the 20 mules pulling the semiconductor wagon.” It’s not what I do.
RS: One of the strengths that Soleras offers its customer base is that problem–solving attitude of let’s work together on this and figure out a win-win solution. What are some of the tougher problems you’ve had to solve? Are they related to these processing conditions or are they people issues?
MP: Some of the worst problems are the ones I’ve never solved. On problem-solving technique, as far as I’m concerned, the best resource is a couple of friends. And the best way to make friends is here because you need a friend who you like and respect (otherwise you won’t listen to them), who is technically qualified, and who is able to speak candidly and honestly. That’s what a friend is. If you’re wrong, they’ll tell you that you’re wrong.
The process seems to be quite simple. If you have a friend who is all these things, and you have a problem, you try to fix the problem and it doesn’t work—you’ve had a couple of whacks at it—so if you’re going to call a friend, then you don’t want to look stupid. So now you very carefully define the problem, which you should have done long before. But now you’re going up before a dear friend and so now you very carefully do it. You if you get past this bit where you think you’ve done a nice job and you call a person up—writing seems to be one thing mentally—we pride ourselves on not lying to ourselves. So if I write something down, it’s the truth because I’m used to it. However, when I speak, the sound goes out and comes in my ear. My ear gets lied to quite regularly, so there’s a filter mechanism going in the audio circuit that says, “Do you realize what you just said?” I would say over half the time when I make a phone call of that type, when I hear myself explaining the problem, I realize I don’t really know the problem. Or, suddenly you say, “there it is.” And other times the friend says they’ll call you back. But I would say that half of the time either you don’t believe you described the problem well, so you go back to ground zero, or more often you listen to yourself and you realize that you’ve just said something which isn’t true. Getting that corrected often reveals the solution.
I had a recent experience where a customer called, had a problem, went at it, tried once, tried twice, and it didn’t work. I called a friend and said, “I just want to go through a process for you, and you tell me what you think.” So I described the situation. I said that the gas flow is about 300 standard ccu. And he said, “How do you know?” The answer is that the instrument said so, and the reason is that a $300 instrument would lie to you, but a $3,500 system surely wouldn’t lie, especially if it has a digital display . . .” My most often-visited trap.
RS: . . .and a nice computer . . .
MP: Surely it wouldn’t lie to you. I made that mistake. I don’t think there are more than 10 mistakes in vacuum—if there are 10—and we make them over and over. One of my favorite quotes comes from one of my favorite people, Gloria Steinem. Her comment was that “Life is not just one damn thing after another; it is the same damn thing over and over.” I think a vacuum error, when you get down to it, you’ve ignored one of the basic rules. From hindsight it was stupid. That’s all I can say. I don’t think we’ve invented any new mistakes. I don’t think I’ve made a new mistake in the last 30 years. I’m still making the same bad calls. I’m calling something “second order,” and in this particular process, it’s not. I just didn’t pay attention—that’s classic.
RS: Since you have so many international customers, what are some of the challenges of doing business on an international scale?
MP: One of the criterion, which is personal and it’s also in my company, is that we try to avoid doing business with someone we haven’t met, shaken a hand, and shared food with. The reason is that we talk to ourselves in the technical industry, but we deal with people. If you think about it, we don’t do any business with IBM; we do business with a few people. It’s by their grace and our work that we survive.
If you’ve never met the people . . . I mentioned about lying to ourselves . . . we lie to ourselves that way too. We talk about a big name. We go in and get a D&B (Dunn & Bradstreet) and we find a big company and go to the bottom line and they make a lot of money, and that’s the definition of a “nice customer.” They have a lot of business, they have a lot of money, and that’s a mental setting. What you do when you go to someone and you share a little bit of time and shake a hand, you’re gut says “No.” You don’t know why. When you’re a small company, you can afford to listen to the visceral things. There are 10 things to do today, and 8 of them have good feelings, and 2 of them don’t. And 8 are more than you could do anyway, so why should you bother? This business is people. I challenge anyone here to tell me that technology is the prime driver. It’s how smart your customer is, and how candid and honest they are. I think one of the things with the overseas people is tutorial. Teach, teach, and teach. Teach customers what we do, teach what our problems are, teach what to look for, teach about targets, teach about simplicity, and teach how common problems are throughout the industry.
One of the things that I’ve just taught one of my customers to do, is that they have four systems that are not identical. I said what you have to do is save your targets for three or four months, then on a Saturday, spread them out and look at them. I can almost promise you that they won’t look alike. But if you group them together, and not turn them over (because where they’ve been clamped onto the machine there is a fingerprint), you’ll find out that in at least three of the machines you may have a problem (arcing or something). When you really get down to it you find out that you may have two cathodes on different machines or just one machine that is sick. This will localize the problem. That was part of teaching a supervisor of a coating system in Portugal. He had four systems that were identical. I told him at the end of three or four months, he ought to come in and line the used targets. We all know they should look identical, and many know they won’t.
The reason we recommend it is because a customer calls us up and says there is an arcing problem. We already know that out of the two or three systems they have, only one is a bear. You just see it. If the customer can stand it, no problem.
One of the definitions of “leaks” I like is that a leak is something thatprevents you from making a product you can sell and will stay sold. It’s a pretty raw definition, but it’s a real one. Some of the glass people say, “If you can’t hear it, it’s not a leak.” But it means that they can make product.
I was in a meeting where we were discussing a system with IBM. And IBM did a very clever thing: they called in vacuum people from around the company, and they had the engineer who was buying the machine explain what he was going to try to do with the system. I was allowed to be in the room in case it got a little sticky in the details. A comment made by one of the IBMpeople was that the system was over pumped (and this was a person from the research facility). One of the gentlemen from the manufacturing side said, “I want to give you a manufacturing person’s definition of an over-pumped system: If you can make the specification with the door open, its over pumped.” There is no such thing as an over-pumped system.
Another rule I learned recently is that a $1000 spent in the load chamber is a better investment than $10,000 spent in the processing chamber—at least if you’re going to improve the system. If you only have so much money, spend it on the load system and get things get cleaned up.
RS: That’s one of the things that people learn many times over.
MP: Many times over. I would say that strengths on overseas’ customers are in South America, Asia—not in the core of Europe. Europe has their owns mean to get their training. You would think that, excluding Japan, that there would be more career opportunities in Taiwan, and it’s not. I don’t know why. When you have discussions of what’s “good maintenance,” what are the basic requirement, you find the interest level of the person you’re talking to very, very high. What we see seems to be quite different than what the ground rules are, and what is explained is nothing more than what everyone kind of knows already.
The problems are chronic. One of the things is what goes on one of three shifts. Shift number three, always blames their misery on shift number two. Shift number two blames their miseries on shift number one, and shift number one says that shift number three screwed the machine up. One of the simple techniques is to have a signoff. Do a rate of rise, the person coming on the shift does a four- or five-minute inspection of temperatures, water flows, and then accepts the machine. If there was something wrong, then they should have said so right at the beginning of the shift. Once the operation has “bought into the machine,” (as I said, very simple for four or five minutes) then if anything goes wrong, then it’s tied to the specific operation. That solves all the blame problems. Overseas, that seems to be a whole new wonderful idea, and here in this country it’s relatively common that you get the shift people to buy the system.
I think it’s a help if you happen to love manufacturing. Coming out of the lamp industry, I like manufacturing. Manufacturing people are different. I worked in the lamp plant, and we had a cafeteria. When the maintenance people came in, the secretaries all hummed a tune (“Here Come the Animals”), and you could hear it throughout the whole cafeteria. They all came trouping in. A point would be that they keep the damn place running.
One of the glass manufacturing people whom I met with (he was at the Superintendent level), I asked him how much glass they made. He said, “Eleven truck loads a day.” Now that’s not square feet or square meters. To him, good or bad days mean he loads 12 truckloads or 10. I thought, what a marvelous explanation, how simple of what manufacturing is all about. I like that environment. I like the thinking because anything you can do to help get you points. And people remember companies don’t. If you do three good things for say, General Motors, the company may thank you. But if you three good things for a person in General Motors, the person remembers. I don’t think you ever do anything for nothing. If you something for one person, it will come back to you. I can only say for my own life, I’m way ahead.
RS: So has the SVC been good to you?
MP: Extremely good, always. This has been one of the, even in the “hard times,” it’s a grand show. But it isn’t just a wonderful show. What the SVC has done is it has given us a pond to swim in that is just full of good goods. If you don’t swim, then tough luck. But the people are here; the needs are here. I think if you cut 100 people out of every technical conference and line them up. If somehow you could scale them, I think you would find fewer “bummers” and more really neat people in this Society than any other that I know of. These people want to go home. They want to make a living. They would like not getting calls at 3:00 in the morning . . .They want their process to run sweet and smooth.
RS: “The machine is down . . .”
MP: “The machine is down. The red light went on.” And yet I don’t think I’d want a job in the vacuum industry where there wasn’t an opportunity to improve. When I went to work at Sylvania, my first job was to test why fine tungsten filaments for making incandescent lamps broke during the winding. I was just out of school when I got this project. I found out that this is the project they gave every young engineer who came into the department, and it had been for 20 years. It’s interesting that it is still the requirement given to a young engineer coming in (wire breakage) because as soon as the wires don’t break, they run the machine faster, and when then the wire breaks, they go back again. So there’s always an opportunity.
I think that in this industry, most systems are pushed: the power is pushed or the cooling is pushed or something until something fails. Now you fix that until something else fails. That is the nature of the industry: to go faster, to make less bad product, and to feel good—get a good night’s sleep, feel useful and secure.
I think that’s the meat of every job in this industry. You notice very few people ever leave this industry. I do notice that they move around a lot, but very few people move out of it. In my family, I’ve got seven children, and there are 18 related significant others (by marriage or otherwise). There are 11 in the industry, and we’re in four different companies, and we often compete. That’s mostly because they all came through Soleras and went out and worked for other companies (Varian, KDF).
RS: There’s still a lot of family business out there.
MP: Oh yes. It’s nice. I don’t like competing with the family too much. My life has been very much focused on the industry, which puts me close to the SVC. It’s been good for me.
RS: When you were President of the SVC, what were some of the issues you had deal with?
MP: There was a period in the Society where we went from being a “decorative” group into other processes. It came from two places. One was Nat Sugerman, who wanted a bigger book to look up things to do. And the other was that things like sputtering were creeping along. What happened in the Society was that they took a gentleman from IBM, Neil Poley, and they made him President. He had resources to bring others in through his work, and the Society began to change. It was not just coils and clips anymore.
One of the big transitions (and I was involved in this chain cycle) was when the Web TAC came in. At first there were no TACs. I would say the program during Neil Poley’s presidency was when in Baltimore, we sat with two people in the hotel room and made the technical program of some 30 or 40 papers. The TACs occurred then because the Web people got together and were looking for a home. They decided that the SVC would be their forum, and the way they worked was as a group. They weren’t yet a TAC, but they came in as a functioning TAC. The thing worked so well, and John Fenn was critical to forming the TACs.
John Fenn will always be dear in my heart because there was time in the Society when we lost money, and there was a discussion of “where to bury the body.” We were in a meeting in Washington, D.C. John Fenn spoke up and said, “This Society is much too critical to my success and my company’s success to have it cease to exist.” We were $12,000 in the hole. He said, “I will put up $1000 up.” He went around the Board of Directors, and we immediately became solvent. I’ve seldom seen that level of kindness and commitment; it was serendipity. John was right. It’s far too good a Society to cease to exist. That was the discussion before the Board at the time. “Do we stay for lunch or do we let it die before lunch on an empty stomach?” That was the turning point and when it became much more structured as it is now, which I think is a secret to its success.
RS: Was it John who was the lead to bring in roll coaters?
MP: The roll coaters came in with John. Whether he was a key part of it or lead it is obscure as an element of the roll coaters. When he went on the Board, he was the spokesman of these roll coaters. But the roll coaters pretty much came as a group. They were pre-organized. It was the same when the coil and clip people came away from the pre-AVS. The roll coaters seemed to be a separate group without a home. They were simply a nomadic tribe that came into the SVC. They set a style that the SVC has expanded on and that works. I won’t say that the web coaters were critical for saving the Society, but the structure they brought in, the weight to get the industry organized, focus on it, and get responses, became a core style of working. I think that’s critical to the success.
RS: So some of the basic education was in the early days, and then this new group came along . . .
MP: The first education was pre-kindergarten is what was needed then. People spelled vacuum with one “U.” Nobody and any idea what a diffusion pump did. Nobody had any idea what a gauge was. I can remember systems that were done at a time where there was no vacuum gauge installed. You pumped for 11 minutes.
RS: That was the procedure?
MP: That was the procedure. It worked. But now and then you got a black load. Then they found out they should go out and buy a vacuum gauge. It’s hard for people now to understand how these people made money. However, these owners did extremely well, for a short time.
RS:In the early days at Optical Coating Laboratory we had one vacuum gauge as I understand it, and they would move it from machine to machine.
MP: That is the same thing I’m talking about. The tools were very limited and not well understood. I think that was typical. I wager today that if we could visit 19 vacuum processing companies nearby in this state, and I don’t know how many we’ll find without a leak detector, but I know we’ll find more than one.
One of the arguments is that if you buy a leak detector, then you’ll find leaks and have to shut down. So the owner says, “There’s no way I’m going to buy a leak detector. It will put my machine down.” That’s the definition of a leak. If I can make product and ship it and get paid for it, then I don’t have a leak. The idea that they could do much better—that’s education. That’s what you teach. That 8% shrinkage is not a necessity could be less than one or two percent. These people are hard to teach because they had to work their butt off to get to 8%. You should have been around when it was 20%.
That’s the function of education in the Society today. That’s why Nat Sugerman changed something: because you can do better. I don’t know anybody in the industry today who works with their hands and are on the floor in process who wouldn’t immediately tell you two or three things: they didn’t have tine to work on it or a little different piece of instrumentation or a small machine modification wouldn’t agree that they could do better. But the interesting thing is that they don’t tell management. They’re not challenged. If 8% yield is acceptable and I’m running 6%, then I’m two ahead of bogey, and life is good.
RS: Bonus is made.
MP: Bonus is made. Don’t tell me I could be 2% and have it run at one ahead of bogey. Very few people have climbed up on a cross holding nails for a crucifixion. It’s not the way it’s done. But that’s part of education too. If the person can feel secure enough, they’ll do it. And that’s the friend. You know, “tell me I’m crazy.” And you have to have enough education to make your own judgment call. The Society provides that. It’s critical.
RS: With some of the early sputtering activities you worked with, what were some of the problems in the early days? Was it material limitations, or supply?
MP: From the sputtering activities I would say that most it was the material side. The chromium in that time was hot pressed and was very directional in its properties. In the beginning targets were cut from blocks, be it on this axis or that axis. It took a long time to realize that some problems that came drifting through the process was because we had cut some targets off perpendicular.
RS: Does that come from customers? How do you discover something as subtle as that?
MP: Talking with the process people who’ve got the 8% allowed defect. Asking, “What can be done?” That’s a people thing. As I said, if he’s allowed 8% and he’s running 6% then he’s 2% favorable. He’s not in trouble with his company. But if he’s a good person and doing his job then he wants to know what’s available, what can he do? That’s what this Society is all about. There are options. Other people do it another way. You can try it.
We had a problem with arcing in copper. We probably produced 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of copper a week for sputtering. Every once in a while one of these targets would go absolutely berserk. You just simply took it out and that was it. I have no idea of the total monies were spent, by us and our customers, trying to take out these little mavericks (which may be only 1 in 200) and ask what’s different? The metallurgy had every diagnostic device I could conceive of and we never did figure it out. Then it went away. But to put 10 targets on a machine and shut it down because one is crazy is irritating. It was only copper; it shouldn’t have been such a mystery. We looked for a whole year and never found it. I would estimate that the money approached $250,000, just looking for differences we never found.
RS: It’s still out there, huh?
MP: It’s still out there. We cut eight targets out of an ingot, sent them to Brazil, six of them were sweet, and two of them were crazy. We had a lot of phone conversations, and I must admit thinking “what do Brazilians know about sputtering?” Well, so two of us went down to Brazil to explain to the customer how to sputter. And the meeting was probably 15 minutes old when they presented their analysis of the problem and the metal. We took back $33,000 worth of targets. They looked just like the other six, but were crazy. We never could find a difference in the targets.
It’s like cutting a slice of pie. You would think that either they would all be good or all bad. But we never did figure it out. It went away, but not by anything we did. I think that if you are going to make 20 kilos of some target material, every time you make 20 kilos it’s a gamble. If you could make 400 kilos every time, then the chances that each 400 are alike are pretty good. Then if you can make 4,000 kilos, they get more like rubber stamps. The problem is that you are making, and the customer is evaluating the process, based on 20 kilos. You already know that the quality of the piece may not the best possible. You just can’t do a 20-kilo ingot as good as you can do 400 or 4,000. I sometimes wonder how many projects failed because the target wasn’t the optimum for the application.
RS: Isn’t that one of the issues the industry faces, in many cases they are niche areas, and so it’s not something you can place an order for 400 kilos right off.
MP: You can’t do it. Should it be 70-30? Should it be 25-75? So now you make a small piece of each one. Even though you meet the certification you meet the tests and everything else, if you’ve been in manufacturing long enough you know that it may not be your best shot. I don’t care what it is. You might be lucky, but it’s a crapshoot as to whether it’s sweet or over the edge.
I would say the biggest sin in this industry produced probably, from the customer’s side, is that most customer’s solve process problems by adding a “9” (99.9, 99.99, 99.999) and everyone of those nines is money. It’s very hard to get the customer to say, “These are the elements I don’t want.” ASTM has a specification for a certain material (maybe tungsten). Tungsten from Portugal and tungsten from Korea are quite different. The ASTM spec says we can use either. Well, that may be fine but if you are trying to do something very specific, the impurities are more critical than the absolute purity. Tungsten coming from Portugal will have one profile, and tungsten from Korea will have another, and we don’t know which to use. If we don’t say anything, it can come from either? The single criterion will be, meet the 9s and low price.
I used to be a transformer designer. I would make a standard offer. If you would show me the circuit diagram, I would make a transformer that would meet the spec and wouldn’t work. I’d bet a month’s salary, mine against yours. That was an open offer every day. I can’t do quite the same thing in this industry, but I would say that maybe on a third of the specifications I see it is possible (if I knew the application and knew what the device was), it is possible to make something to the spec and almost guarantee it won’t work. And yet, habitually we all fit it by adding “9s.” If someone would say iron, 100 ppm max—that’s it in an optical system. We’re shipping 99.999. Nobody says that they really want to see iron nondetected. A lot of money gets spent to get each 9, and some is wasted. Often aluminum in silicon is not a problem but mondy is spent to remove it.
RS: And sometimes people use it.
MP: Yes, and they like it a little. The same thing as on tungsten, where a little molybdenum is often not a problem; a little tantalum or niobium is a problem. But they leave the back end of the “9s,” not wide open, but quite forgiving when it isn’t necessary.
RS: Sometimes they don’t know.
MP: That’s true, and other times they don’t look. I would say a great deal of money is spent on control of the process by adding “9s” when adding limits on elements would serve the same function for much less money.
RS: Right. You’ve seen so many of these different markets, from razor blades to CDs, to big 8-meter telescopes coated on the tops of mountains. So how is the 8-meter telescope coming along?
MP: They’re coating this week.
MP: That’s a terrible job. They coat once a year, 27 feet in diameter, and if they don’t get a good coating, if there’s no adhesion, it’s 15 days to go back all the way around. We have the one in Hawaii and the one in Chile. The system is the Gemini South, and it’s done by sputtering. The Japanese have an 8-meter telescope, and they do it all by evaporation—tungsten coils and aluminum clips, a gazillion of them. I understand it works well.
RS: Back like John Strong did?
MP: Exactly, yes. That’s the difference. You have compact disc people doing a disc at 400 milliseconds, and you have a group in Chile doing a mirror that takes 15 days and on which the deposition time is hours. And we call them both sputtering. They’re both sputtering aluminum, and they’re both doing reflective properties. It’s incredible.
I’ve often said on trips to the Engineering Society that we should all get badges that have the frequency we deal in—whether you have an audio band or 60-herz or 400-herz or DC—electrical engineering is a little bit like our industry. If you’re in vacuum deposition, there’s a materials deal, physical size, coating time, and substrate to separate. An 8-meter diameter substrate to me is incredible, but they’re out there coated routinely. That’s an exciting part of the industry and of the discipline.
RS: I know they wouldn’t have got there as quickly as they have without a lot of your help, so I’m sure they’re pretty grateful for what you’ve contributed.
MP: How do you define a leak in a 155,000-litre chamber? If you can coat, there’s no leak—another definition. If the leak is in front of the pump, then the world is good to you. If the leak is around the sputter cathode, the world is not good to you.
That’s one of the nice things about being my age in the industry is that I’m allowed to become active in some areas that are not commercially rewarding, but people-wise they’re wonderful. The reward is great for investing in people. We’re doing some elegant things (the semiconductor people), and this individual doing an 8-meter telescope reflector is also doing something pretty damn clever. I wouldn’t want either job.
RS: You’d supply the target . . .
MP: Yes, I’d love to work with them to supply the target, but the day they coat the mirror I want to be out fishing somewhere. This has been a wonderful industry, and it makes the Society a great society.
RS: One last question here. When did the SVC move away from Detroit as a venue?
MP: I don’t know—was it the early 80s? The thing I remember was that in Detroit we were advised not to leave the hotel; you know where you have the business meeting and everything else?
MP: One of the pieces of advice was don’t leave the hotel except in a taxicab. Well they were burning part of the city at the time—
MP: This was during the riots. Mainly out Detroit was an element of the expansion of the Society because as long as we had Detroit—and nobody quite understands this, but in the 60s and 70s Detroit was automotive, and not a damn other thing happened there. Now automotive people weren’t too interested in going there.
RS: I see.
MP: So when you move away from Detroit to Boston, suddenly you’re in the middle of neutral ground. Detroit, that was another world. As I remember, nobody went to jail—probably some of us should have.
RS: There are quite a few stories . . .
MP: Yeah, there were some wild characters. But the Society was organized totally differently yet served identical needs. Somebody had a vacuum system and a job to do . . . I tell many people, I think here in the Society probably I’d say 80% of the people go back to run a machine that is not ideal for what they have to do. Since the machine was bought, the processes have changed, the materials have changed, the speed changed, so now it’s not the sweetest machine they could have, but it’s the only one they’re going to get. Many of them are here trying to figure out “how can they make this from that?” because that’s what they’re going to have to do. I don’t think that’s at all unusual. The system people are here trying to say that they have a solution, which is a new system, and the support people are here saying that if you buy our instrument then the old machine will do it. And we’re here saying our gasoline will fit any tank.
MP: I think this is where that happens. People come here looking for a better way—not always to solve problems. Sometimes it’s just to do a better job. There are a lot of people out there who would like to just do a better job.
RS: Why do you have two first names, as a last question?
MP: Nobody knows. I tell people that inside my home I was Alan, but out on the streets I was Mike. And this goes back to being a toddler. The children I played with called me Mike, and we don’t know why. The only thing that comes out of it is that only two people refer to me as Allen: the Highway Police and the Internal Revenue Service. If people say to me, “Good morning Alan,” I know I’m already in deep trouble! It’s been Mike for so long that I have no idea.
RS: We’re glad you spent this time with us, and we thank you.
MP: I’m very proud of the Society and very pleased to be here talking about it.
RS: We hope you come back next year.
MP: I hope so too.