If you want to pinpoint the home of digitization, especially in the United States, it does not take long. Silicon Valley, with its many tech companies, is considered the hub of digital innovation par excellence. Companies such as Apple, HP, Facebook and Google are synonyms for creativity in this millenium.
In contrast to this, there is a small town named St. Marys located in the state of Pennsylvania, midway between New York City and Cleveland, Ohio. You would never guess that it plays a huge role in digitization as well. Yet here on the outskirts of the idyllic Allegheny National Forest essential materials and components are developed and produced, without which the digital transformation would never be possible. As an SGL advertisement from 1995 succinctly put it: Without graphite, you could only raise sheep in Silicon Valley.
Without graphite, you could only raise sheep in Silicon Valley.
SGL advertisement from 1995
Driving to the town, with its population of just around 13,000 residents, you pass signs warning of wild bears. Other signs, in turn, herald the many carbon and graphite companies that have set up shop in peaceful St. Marys. The lineage of SGL Carbon’s St. Marys facility dates back to 1899, carrying digitization from St. Marys out into the world. The production capabilities in the largest town of Elk County, as the region is called, is a central location of SGL Carbon’s production chain that enables and advances global digitization, especially of LED and semiconductor technology as the basis for computer chips.
Many manufacturers of LED and semiconductors rely on system components from St. Marys for their manufacturing processes - namely in the form of SGL Carbon graphite-based carriers coated with silicon carbide (SiC), known as wafer carriers. During the manufacture of LEDs or semiconductors, the chip blanks are deposited into prepared indentations on the round rotating carriers and are then coated with various semiconductor materials. This process also largely determines the properties of the LEDs, for instance their color or brightness.
“LEDs and semiconductors will influence our lives even more than they have before,” says SGL Carbon Global Product Manager Barry Hancox. LEDs in particular are becoming increasingly prevalent in our everyday lives. They are used not just in smartphone and television screens, but also in the automotive industry in headlights, daytime running lights, taillights, turn signals and interior lighting. More and more signage systems can’t be made without LEDs. In vertical farming, special LED color combinations replace sunlight and thus make it possible to grow tomatoes and other vegetables all year long regardless of location.
And the market for semiconductors, computer chips and other applications is also dynamic. Among industry experts, power semiconductors of silicon carbide (SiC) are considered a disruptive market force. Compared to semiconductors of regular silicon, they are faster, more robust and more efficient. Studies show that the worldwide demand in the SiC technology sector may rise to more than three billion euros by the year 2025, with double-digit growth rates. The figures for LEDs are even more impressive: studies show that sales volumes could rise to 45.5 billion euros by the year 2022 (from 16 billion euros in 2014) - helped by the fact that since 2012, with only a few exceptions, incandescent lamps are no longer being sold.
There really is no trace of graphite dust in the facilities at St. Marys. Instead of regular lab coats, employees wear clean-room apparel. The final products are touched only by employees wearing white gloves and the products’ surfaces are analyzed with high-powered microscopes. Cleanliness and continual quality improvement have the highest priority.
The strong growth is also fueling the demand for SiC-coated wafer carriers from SGL Carbon. In order to fulfill the increasing demand, the company is investing in the expansion of the SiC coating systems and the further development of its systems, solutions and expertise in St. Marys - a total of 25 million euros by mid-2018. The focus is on increasing capacities but also on the extreme cleanliness in production and process innovations. “Our customers work in sterile environments and we must continually adapt to this standard to remain the preferred choice,” says St. Marys Site Operations Manager Tom Detsch, who is also coordinating the expansion. Among other things, it includes an expanded surface inspection designed to detect surface abnormalities in the carrier trays. “We are speaking of discovering deviations in the micrometer range,” explains St. Marys Quality Manager Tom Chiodo. “The purity of the carriers ultimately determines the purity and thus the performance of the chips.”
In turn, new thermal simulations help to analyze in advance how high the stresses and strains are for the wafer carriers during the production processes and determine where optimizations are needed. “This is about avoiding material defects early on and thereby minimizing costs,” notes Detsch. “At the same time, it is increasingly important to give customers our own impulses for further developments, for instance in the form of new models for controlling production processes or for new designs.” To meet this goal, the expansion is not just an enlargement and modernization of the facilities. It also includes building up new research and development expertise.
Customer interaction is of particular importance. Customer representatives regularly meet with interdisciplinary SGL teams at the site to develop new solutions together. The St. Marys facility is thus already a prime example of the general development of SGL Carbon - from a materials supplier to a technology driver working to find trendsetting solutions with its partners.
LEDs and semiconductors will influence our lives even more than they have before.
Barry Hancox, Global Product Manager at SGL Carbon
The future has already begun - and in St. Marys, too. Micro LEDs, for example, are a next-generation trend. They are smaller than 100 micrometers in length and tinier than the width of a human hair. Their biggest fields of application will be in smartphones, smart watches, televisions and for virtual reality applications. These types of displays offer an even more luminous image and are simultaneously thinner and much more energy efficient. Whether small or large LEDs, one thing is clear: without the materials and solutions from the SGL production facility in Elk County, the world would be a much darker place.