By Randy B. Hecht
Many of us fantasize about living in the future. But at Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Tool Engineering, Ltd., Kazuyuki Kubota, Head of Manufacturing Department and Head of Coating Technology, actually works in the future. This isn’t science fiction. He hasn’t mastered the art of time travel. But when it comes to coating systems and technology, Kubota never stops anticipating the next breakthrough in requirements, capabilities and performance.
This makes partnering with him something like playing with a chess master whose mind is always working three moves ahead. Some companies might find that intimidating. But the team at Oerlikon Balzers finds it inspiring. Yes, it’s rewarding to bring products to market that “meet or exceed” customers’ expectations. But it’s more interesting when each product launch motivates the customer to envision the next stage of expectations and performance standards.
To put it another way: the pace of change is so rapid these days that it’s no longer possible to use state of the art technology — only technology that’s state of the art for now. Each advance establishes the foundation for the next one. And customers like Kubota drive the Oerlikon Balzers team to work continuously on being first to market with what’s next.
Exacting standards, clear-cut results
The right coating can improve a tool’s precision, resistance to friction and abrasion, and durability. It can also strengthen a company’s reputation. For decades, Mitsubishi Hitachi Tool Engineering has relied on coatings to optimize the performance of its machinery and forming tools as well as its leadership position.
The company, which manufactures and sells tips along with cutting and forming tools made of special steels or carbide alloys, has an obligation to its own customers and a commitment to growing with them. Each new generation of tools employs the latest coating technology to ensure that the company retains its competitive edge in this market. It has collaborated with Oerlikon Balzers for more than 30 years in pursuit of these goals.
More than a decade ago, during development of the new Arc technology, Oerlikon Balzers introduced the INNOVA system, which enabled Kubota’s team to reduce the time required to develop and manufacture many new coatings and products. Most recently, Mitsubishi Hitachi purchased the latest advance, INLENIA, a line of coating systems that Oerlikon Balzers designed for ultra-smooth surfaces. The solution attracted Kubota’s interest because of benefits such as making customization possible thanks to the precise, independent scalability of pulse duration, shape, and density. This represents a significant advance beyond conventional HiPIMS (high-power impulse magnetron sputtering).
“HiPIMS is useful for products that require low particle coating, which is one of the features and advantages of this technology,” Kubota says. “To expand our business within these product lines, we are considering installing additional systems. We want to use this system as the foundation of further research and development.”
Tomorrow’s challenges, in focus today
But his longtime partners at Oerlikon Balzers knew that even as Mitsubishi Hitachi put the INLENIA system’s potential to work, Kubota would be thinking about further advances in the technology. He continues to monitor emerging coating system developments and is already considering where to make future investments in those next-generation systems.
“We want to develop new coatings with special compositions that are beyond the range of the conventional nitride coating in the existing market,” he says. “At the same time, we also consider that another technology is necessary to make these new coatings act properly and functionally on the cutting tools, as well.”
PVD (physical vapor deposition) technology is another area where there is “room to progress and be improved,” he says. “Applying HiPIMS technologies to our products is just starting point of this progress. By using this technology, we can generate additional hints and ideas for future technologies. Our collaborative work and relationship with Oerlikon Balzers supports our search for such a new technology.”
It’s a search that shows no sign of ending — because every time these partners achieve an objective, they ask themselves what new challenge they can take on. Of course, the engineers at Oerlikon Balzers have an internal drive to build on their record of breakthroughs. But there’s something empowering and inspiring about having a customer who’s always wondering what can be done to improve current products and solutions. It is through collaboration with clients such as Kazuyuki Kubota and his team at Mitsubishi Hitachi Tool Engineering that Oerlikon Balzers optimizes its capacity for exploring each successive advance in coating systems and exploiting the full potential of these technologies. And that’s what “working in the future” is all about.