“An interview with Carlos Guerra.”
This is the fifth post in a series of blogs in which we will share exciting information about companies or other organizations within the atomic scale processing industry. Through an interview, we aim to get insight into the kind of products and projects the companies have and in which way they see their company developing in the future. We also try to dive deeper into what drives these companies and what makes them so special in the atomic scale processing industry. In addition, we will address topics like how the company implements science communication and which student opportunities exist.
|Facts and Figures about Swiss Cluster|
|Company location||Thun, Switzerland|
|Year established||November 2020|
|Markets||Markets within ALD and PVD related activities from academia to industrial production: Semiconductor, medical, optics, mechanics, energy generation and storage, decorative, as well as emerging applications combining ALD and PVD|
|Main collaborations||Empa, Bern University, Iowa State University, Cranfield University, and several companies.|
|Number of employees 2023||10|
|Number of employees 2022||4|
|Student opportunities||Always! We encourage open applications and provide a space for projects|
|Goal for 2023||Product and brand recognition within the different thin-film communities, attract new customers and establish sales and distribution network. Grow the team and consolidate our products.|
For this post, we had the privilege of speaking with Carlos Guerra, the CEO and co-founder of Swiss Cluster. Based in Thun, Switzerland, this young pioneering company has achieved a remarkable feat by developing the world’s first compact and modular system that combines Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD) and Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD). One of the main goals of the company is to empower researchers and companies with cutting-edge tools that accelerate materials breakthroughs. With their adaptable and scalable deposition systems, Swiss Cluster builds on the next generation of thin film deposition systems.
The story of Swiss Cluster
The story of the recently founded company traces back to a spinoff from the renowned Empa, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology. During the period that Carlos Guerra, CEO and Co-founder of Swiss Cluster, was pursuing his PhD at Empa, he and his fellow researchers came up with an idea – to seamlessly couple two thin film deposition techniques in one system: ALD and PVD.
However, turning this idea into reality was not an easy task. The team embarked on a journey that spanned years, dedicated to the development, installation, and optimization of a custom system that could integrate both ALD and PVD. Undeterred by the complexities, in 2019, the founders devised a clever approach that not only combined the cutting-edge deposition technologies but also incorporated metrology. They named it “Swiss Cluster”, paying homage to its Swiss origins.
Central to their innovation was a resolute commitment to flexibility and adaptability. The aim was to come up with a solution that would not only cater to existing requirements but also be able to easily adapt to future needs. After securing internal funding, within a remarkable six-month timeframe, the first prototype of Swiss Cluster’s system was operational. Fueled by this success and encouraged by feedback from other companies, Swiss Cluster set their sights higher. The team envisioned a bigger and more comprehensive tool, opening up new possibilities for the thin films deposition industry. In November 2020, with their first purchase order already in hand, the company was formally founded, marking a milestone in their journey. Since then, the team has been growing and building their expertise.
What topics is Swiss Cluster working on now?
The flagship model of Swiss Cluster is the SC-1 series which combines ALD with PVD in an extremely compact, modular, and fully automated system for easy production of multi nanolayered coatings. Previously, at Empa, there was a cumbersome cluster system that necessitated moving the substrate between chambers when switching from ALD to PVD, leading to a time-consuming process. Recognizing the need for materials requiring multiple multilayers from both processes, Swiss Cluster set out to develop a solution.
The system designed by Swiss Cluster adopts a vertical arrangement, departing from the conventional setup in which ALD and PVD chambers are positioned side by side. In this vertical integration, the substrate remains fixed in the top chamber, dedicated to the ALD process. A strategically positioned gate valve divides the two chambers, enabling a seamless transition when conducting PVD processes (with the PVD target positioned in the bottom chamber) without having to break the vacuum.
Swiss Cluster’s innovative design offers several advantages. Firstly, the system maintains a stable temperature throughout the entire process, eliminating the need for time-consuming cool-down and heat-up cycles. Secondly, it significantly reduces idle time associated with substrate movement. This movement can also lead to enhanced contamination of the substrate which now is prevented. Moreover, the vertical arrangement reduces the system’s footprint, optimizing space utilization in research environments. The fixed substrate point also facilitates in-situ metrology, making measurements considerably more accessible. In-situ stress wafer measurement, time-of-flight mass spectrometry, and quartz crystal microbalance measurements are some of the metrology techniques employed.
The machine can be used for simpler cases involving just a few layers or for complex processes with hundreds of layers. This flexible, scalable, and modular system accommodates a wide range of applications.
One of the possibilities is the introduction of conformal and pinhole-free ALD films onto PVD-coated surfaces. This allows for effectively modifying the grain structure and controlling the material’s properties for specific applications, for instance tailoring the mechanical and electrical response at different sections of the coating, tailor the refractive index of the layers while improving mechanical and thermal stability or fine tuning the bio degradation of functional medical coatings at different rates.
When ALD films are intercalated onto PVD films, they act as barriers that impede the growth of individual grains. This interruption prevents the formation of larger grains, leading to smaller grain sizes and more uniform microstructures. The resulting material exhibits improved hardness, yield strength, and mechanical properties due to the higher density of grain boundaries, which inhibit dislocation motion and enhance material strength. This strategy is particularly valuable in industries where lightweight, high-strength materials are crucial, such as aerospace, automotive, microelectronics and sports equipment manufacturing. Furthermore, the same ALD films serve as exceptional thermal barrier layers in high-temperature applications. As the operating temperature of a material increases, grain growth can lead to reduced mechanical integrity and compromised performance. By depositing intercalated ALD films onto PVD coatings, the growth of grains is restrained, maintaining the material’s structural stability and mechanical properties at elevated temperatures.
Combining ALD and PVD in one vertical tool
The vertical arrangement and keeping the sample fixed has several advantages:
- Removes the need of multiple chambers and transfer arms, drastically reducing the footprint, the acquisition, and maintenances costs.
- Since there is no need to transfer between chambers, the fabrication time is drastically reduced, particularly when depositing dozens to hundreds of ALD/PVD layers.
- Because the substrate is fixed in one stage holder, the substrate can remain at the same temperature throughout the ALD/PVD depositions without temperature variations or cooling down that is caused when sample is transferred between chambers as in the conventional cluster systems.
- The same in situ metrology equipment can access both deposition processes, or measure the substrate during any of the processes.
In addition to the combined ALD and PVD system, Swiss Cluster is actively developing Batch ALD systems. These systems utilize a single chamber approach, enabling faster heating and cooling in a range from 3 to 50 liters for R&D applications or small batch production, and 140 to 1000 liters for industrial applications. A unique aspect of the system is that Swiss Cluster designs their chambers specifically for the set of samples they are working with, and the coating material required. This allows for a faster and more efficient coating process.
Swiss Cluster’s future goals involve creating an intelligent system by integrating the metrology tools with their software, establishing a feedback loop for process optimization. Additionally, they aim to develop a batch system that combines the ALD and PVD techniques. Ultimately, they strive to establish a strong reputation within the thin film community as a reliable company with cutting-edge deposition equipment and a pleasant team.
What is the unique expertise of Swiss Cluster
Swiss Cluster’s unique expertise lies in their ability to develop processes tailored to specific outcomes. With a team of engineers, well-versed in both the scientific aspects of ALD and PVD, as well as the engineering part, Swiss Cluster is very strong in building comprehensive systems from the ground up.
Furthermore, Swiss Cluster’s proficiency extends to software development. Drawing from their team’s experience as users of homemade and commercial systems, they continuously strive for improvements, seeking to enhance process speed, accessibility, and cost-effectiveness.
In addition, Swiss Cluster stands out by approaching familiar technologies in new ways. Their emphasis on flexibility and modularity in machine design enhances upscaling potential, offering researchers and industries new possibilities for advancing thin film deposition technologies.
What are the target customers of Swiss Cluster
Swiss Cluster caters to a broad spectrum of customers with varying needs for deposition equipment. Their clientele includes research and academia, standing as their primary customer base, where Swiss Cluster provides tools for conducting cutting-edge research in thin films deposition. For companies engaged in research and development, the combination ALD and PVD tool offered by Swiss Cluster stands out for its processing time and provides access to a range of metrology tools, serving as a good starting point for new projects. Their expertise finds application in diverse markets, including semi, optical coatings, medical implants, decorative coatings, high-temperature materials, solar cells, and batteries.
Collaborations are key to Swiss Cluster’s growth. Partnering with institutions like EMPA, Bern University of Applied Sciences and other companies fosters a win-win scenario. The institutions and companies can use the equipment while Swiss Cluster validates their technology for real-life applications. These collaborations not only boost sales and funding opportunities but also enhance the company’s name recognition.
Does Swiss Cluster actively pay attention to science communication?
Swiss Cluster actively engages in science communication through various channels. They publish papers showcasing their research and development of new materials or unique innovations. Collaborating with scientists, they highlight the advantages of their combined ALD and PVD system through joint publications. In the 2022 paper of Priebe et al, the potential of integrating a time-of-flight mass spectrometer for real-time control of thin-film fabrication processes is investigated using the SC-1 system from Swiss Cluster.
Engaging with a wider audience, Swiss Cluster uses social media platforms to share insights, updates, and advancements. Additionally, their presence in conferences allows them to present their equipment, foster collaborations, and exchange knowledge with experts in the industry. By doing so, Swiss Cluster remains dedicated to advancing science communication and promoting their expertise in the thin film deposition community.
What does The team look like?
Swiss Cluster is a dynamic team of 10 individuals representing 5 nationalities, driven by innovation. They have a strong connection with academia, often collaborating with students for master’s theses and internships, with several former students now being full-time employees.
Located at Empa’s facility, Swiss Cluster offers a unique environment for research and development, offering access to their advanced machines for researcher purposes. The employees at Swiss Cluster have a broad range of backgrounds, including physics, mechanical engineering, software engineering, material science, and various back-office roles such as production, operations, and marketing. The company is continuously on the lookout for passionate individuals and warmly welcomes both experienced professionals and students who wish to join their innovative team. With commitment to growth and innovation, they continue to build the next generation in thin film deposition systems.