Dimensions that were previously unthinkable Materials expert Mirjam Arndt on collaboration, cooperation, and partnership
Collaboration, cooperation, partnership. These words represent a recurring theme in our talk with Dr. Mirjam Arndt, Head of R&D Product Development at Oerlikon Balzers. And as we spoke, she covered a broad spectrum of topics, including her 15-member international team as well as colleagues in sales, customers and partners at academic institutes.
“The key question we pose to ourselves daily is: How can we create new coatings, and thereby new products, that the market is demanding, either consciously or unconsciously?” explains the metallurgist and materials scientist. Her department is engaged in innovation management – and that is interpreted in the broadest sense possible: “Our colleagues in R&D Technology develop the hardware components that are required for the coating process: for example, new arc evaporation sources. Our in-house engineering team and our R&D Technology department are together responsible for the development of systems,” Arndt says. “Here in R&D Product Development, we use these results to create new coatings, on the one hand, but also to enable the production of existing coatings with new system technologies.”
System technology – a defining moment
Her enthusiasm and passion for her job are clearly evident throughout our talk. After conferral of her doctorate and a post-doc year, she left her alma mater, RWTH Aachen University, for a position in industry at Germany’s METAPLAS, which today is also part of Oerlikon Balzers and thus the Oerlikon Group. “I worked on an aluminum-titanium-nitride coating there that has ultimately proven to be very successful – but that also required a refinement of the systems involved. That was something of a defining moment for me,” recalls Arndt.
Her later work in the R&D Surface Technology department of a large industrial user made it possible for her to enhance her knowledge in the area of machining. “But as users, we had absolutely no way of influencing the system technology there. Consequently, after projects in Germany, the USA and Israel, I came to Oerlikon Balzers in Liechtenstein exactly ten years ago. And now, I finally have the opportunity to influence not only coatings, but also the refinement and further development of entire technologies.” And right away, Arndt cites the INNOVENTA platform as an example. This system now enables highly complex coatings to be deposited in a decidedly productive manner. That means a greater quantity of different coating materials for complex coating architectures and nano layers – and what’s more, at speeds up to twice as fast as could be achieved previously. The result is that in addition to cutting applications, it is also possible to deal even better with the requirements for forming tools or certain precision components.
Real products instead of research work
Has researcher Mirjam Arndt ever felt drawn to return to a university context? She laughs. “Well, sometimes, yes, but I am in constant contact with various institutes and research colleagues across the whole of Europe. At a university, research leads to publication. We, on the other hand, end up with a real product in our hands, and customers can actually use it. In fact, it’s not at all unusual for entirely new fields of application to be opened up, such as by our S3p technology [see box]. We also get feedback directly from the market – and that provides unbelievable motivation.”
The team maintains close relationships with universities and research facilities across Europe to keep abreast of basic scientific research developments – for example, with RWTH Aachen University, with EMPA in Zurich, and with the Vienna University of Technology, where an additional joint Christian Doppler Laboratory has been set up that commenced work on March 1, 2019. Its primary focus is surface technology for highly loaded precision components, which is one of the strategic growth areas for Oerlikon Balzers. And, each one of these partners has Oerlikon Balzers systems installed, as Mirjam Arndt explains: “This ensures that we are conducting the basic scientific research on the ‘right’ systems. This research work produces ideas that can be incorporated in later product development projects. To do so, we prepare road maps for projects and products in cooperation with our business units, and a detailed market and competitor analysis helps ensure that our development work is on target to meet the needs of industry.”
Win-win situation for customers and developers
«Every one of us must both comprehend our customers’ applications and be prepared to complement each other and provide mutual support.»
There is close cooperation with customers, as well, because there are not laboratories geared to every specific application as there are with the in-house machining laboratory. Consequently, the team works together very closely with customers in the areas of forming tools and precision components, starting in the development phase. These partnerships achieve a win-win effect: “The customer gets a better coating, and we can improve our products thanks to the feedback from the customers and the results achieved in field tests.”
Mirjam Arndt explains: “To develop a marketable coating, we need to understand precisely what the customers need, where the loading associated with the application arises – such as temperatures and forces – and what wear mechanisms are involved. We then translate this knowledge into the necessary coating properties. Fine tuning these is then the core expertise of my team.”
And as for the team: When Mirjam Arndt talks about “her” 15 team members, who hold doctorates in materials science and physics and who come from twelve different nations, the pride she takes in her department is unmistakable. She started with only two staff members. “My job was to expand the team, which often entailed helping scientists who came to us directly from a university and had no experience in industry to understand our application-oriented coating product development work. Every one of us must both comprehend our customers’ applications and be prepared to complement each other and provide mutual support. We have no use for lone warriors. Moreover, Oerlikon offers an ideal environment that allows my staff to develop further within the company, either in their disciplines or in a management career, depending on their inclination. This ‘internal network’ then also ultimately benefits our department.”
New materials require new coatings “beyond nitrides”
In addition to a well-filled development pipeline, the R&D Product Development also deals with future trends. Arndt sees the greatest challenge in the area of new base materials, which will need entirely new coating solutions. These can be new substrate materials, for one thing, that require innovative protective coatings – for example, in the area of precision components – or new materials requiring processing with cutting tools or forming tools.
For instance: a new class of material systems with greater thermal and/or chemical stability characterized by higher hardness. This will open up entirely new fields of application. At the same time, however, these materials are also highly brittle and therefore demand new coating materials beyond conventional nitrides. “In the aerospace sector, these can be new base materials for turbines, for example, that must be able to withstand significantly higher temperatures than previously,” says Mirjam Arndt with a view toward the future. “Consequently, we will need to offer new protective coatings resistant to extreme temperatures and oxidation. In the energy production sector, we are dealing with lower temperatures, by contrast, but corrosion and erosion resistance are extremely important here, which we will need to achieve with coating development work outside of today’s PVD spectrum.”
Mirjam Arndt and her team won’t be getting bored any time soon: “We want to be able to offer our customers products for these new applications,” she says. “For us, that means we must begin to change the way we think – in dimensions that have previously not been imagined because they simply were not possible. This is the challenge that we are already working on together with our partners.”
S3p – A Smooth Revolution
S3p technology combines the advantages of arc evaporation and sputtering technologies. The unique process window and the separate scalability of the pulse duration, pulse shape and current density open up new possibilities for customer-specific coating design that is marketed in the BALIQ product family. Application examples for this technology include micro tools or threading tools, which require precise and smooth high-performance coatings.