Q: What are some of the challenges of new vacuum-coated product scale-up? Part 3 of 3

By Dr. Charles A. Bishop

Lab, then pilot, then production scale-up

An alternative route to production may be to scale up to a pilot-production system, which would be an intermediate step between the laboratory and full production. The aim here is that the pilot system is large enough to run at production speeds and can even produce some product, but primarily it is designed to minimize the risk when building the full production system, which would be aimed at being closer to the ideal of a turnkey system. This intermediate system fills in the gaps between R&D and production and can test out other attributes that the laboratory system could not (i.e.: long-term process stability; the effect of temperature and outgassing). It may also enable some practical design features to be evaluated such as quick-release shielding to enable faster exchange of shields during roll changes or verifying coating uniformity and optimizing any shaped deposition shields.

The pilot system also provides a testbed system for any future developments, either for coating modifications or for new coatings, thus again helping minimize the risk of taking product from R&D to production. These advantages do, of course, have a downside, namely building and running the pilot system may delay the time getting to full production and also costing more.

It is all a matter of perspective. I have seen companies where scaling directly from R&D to production has failed to work, and the resulting delay has run into years. As with all hindsight it is clear that, in these cases, they would have benefited greatly from building a pilot system to minimize the risk. Other companies that did not opt for building a pilot system successfully went directly to a production system. What is not always clear is if this was achieved because the process was more tolerant, there had been more extensive R&D done before making the step to production, or just good luck. What is clear is that the more information that can be obtained about the process, particularly recreating as closely to production conditions as possible, will minimize the risk.