THE SCIENCE OF COATINGS: Advanced Coating Technologies

By October 27, 2016Articles

Dr. Kamal Upadhya is a world renowned scientist with a Ph.D. from a renowned UK university in material science and engineering.
He is vice president of technology at ACT Inc. and heads up their R & D department.

Based out of Valencia, CA., Advanced Coating Technologies (ACT) began operations in 2006. They quickly made a name for themselves as a leader in the Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) coating industry. Ironically, their success caused friction between the partners and it was sold. Under new ownership, ACT is in the process of expanding their already extensive coating capabilities. More machines, adding employees, and a new 16,000sq.ft. headquarters are all part of their long-standing commitment to quality and excellence. They manufacture their own brand of trademark® coatings and report that they also provide custom coatings for some of the tooling industry’s biggest names. Some customers go to them with tooling and they coat it, while others design their tools with ACT coatings in mind. They offer standard catalog coatings for numerous tooling industries and is a fully customizable coating solution company as well.

ACT has a catalog of more than 30 standard PVD coatings, but what really makes them stand out is their ability to create customized coatings for specialized requirements. “Many of our coatings can be considered industry pioneer coatings” explains sales manager Kristin Cannistraci. “ Mold and Dies are just one segment of our business. Some of the biggest mold companies in the world have us manufacture their proprietary blend coatings. Dr. Kamal Upadhya, our Vice President, Technology, and head of R & D will meet with them directly to come up with the best coating to meet their need. Having a world renowned scientist on staff is what really sets us apart in a company of this size.” PVD coatings have been around since the early 80’s with monolayer Titanium Nitride (TiN). Today, coatings are more and more common in applications where two or more surfaces experience wear, abrasion and erosion during sliding on each other or due to rotation. Also in the cutting tools where edges are required to remain hard and retain sharpness PVD coatings have become a necessity. “Nearly every industry can benefit by the use of coatings,” continues Kristin. “Racing, medical, aerospace, dental, automotive, injection or compression moldings and standard machining are a few of our larger industries.” Dr. Kamal stresses that any time two or more surfaces come in to contact by sliding or rotation there must be a suitable coating with maximum hardness and lowest coefficient of friction in order to minimize or reduce the abrasion, wear, adhesion  or surface fatigues mechanism prevailing between the surfaces.

“In short we provide surface modification services for cutting tools, medical, aerospace and automotive industries in order to achieve “desired properties” for their tools and components,” explains Dr.Kamal. “We modify the surfaces of tool and machine components by depositing a suitable ceramic/composite thin film coating (1-4 microns) atom by atom on it by using very high vacuum environment. PVD coatings are therefore, very pure with high hardness, defect free and generally possess compressive stress. I use word “engineered” because every industry has different needs and requirements. End mills are a different animal than dies, soft metals versus hard ones. Chips get attached to the tools and whatever you are trying to accomplish won’t be as effective without a coating. Each application is unique to the user, and our job is to engineer the coating to meet their specific needs.” ACT knows that there is not a single recipe for every wear, abrasion and corrosion phenomenon, so they engineer the coatings to solve the problem that customers have. Now a days nano technology is the magical word in every technology. Smaller is an advantage because you can mix many different materials if it is small. ACT’s titanium nitrite coating is only 2 microns thick and it consists of 32-35 nano-size layers of ceramic/composite coatings. “Coatings have gone from a single layer into multi layer systems at the nano size and nano grains level,” elaborates Dr.Kamal. “This drastically improves strength and impact resistance. For example a tool with 32.0 layers of coating on it might develop a micro crack predicated on an impact and this will remain confined into initial few layers only. It is just that, a micro crack. We still have layer after layer of coating below it. If that same impact hit a tool with only a single layer of coating the crack becomes structural and you can expect failure of the tool.”

Kristin gives a few examples of how the ACT coatings are helping customers in different fields. “We have a customer who works in super abrasive composites. They have eight end mills going at a time on a single machine. The end mills were lasting only for a short interval of time before they were damaged too much to continue. One of our new coatings Kamal designed specifically for their needs has increased the tool life about five times.” ACT’s goal is to continue to refine the coating so the customer can use their tools for longest time and obtain precise finished dimensions and smooth surfaces of the final finished products. “Tool replacement takes over an hour so we’ve already made huge gains, but we are shooting for more. The new ACT coated end mills cost around 15-25% more than their previous end mills, but labor savings alone makes it worth the money.”

According to ACT they are seeing similar results in the mold industry. “One of our customers invests $80,000 in a single mold that was lasting only 3-4 months,” describes Kristin. “Our new custom engineered coating for them has driven the usage up to over a year before replacement. The layers of ACT’s coating on their mold is allowing for better release so the parts are not sticking, and the products exhibit superior quality and performance. No more wire brushes and screwdrivers to clean off residue. That alone has added a ton of longevity. Take into account this company has hundreds of molds like this, so we are not talking about saving them just a few dollars.”

Quality coatings like the ones at ACT will extend tool life, add lubrication, save time, and improves quality in a variety of applications. End mills, molds, knife blades,
drill bits and gears can all benefit by having the right coating. There is no single recipe for every application so ACT engineers develop custom coatings to solve
specific problems that the different industries have.

Research and development gives ACT unique advantages in the marketplace. Behind all the science is a scientist, and at ACT Dr. Kamal Upadhya is the driving force. “When I meet with people I have to ask them how long we should continue our technical presentation,”  jokes Kamal. “One hour, half hour? I can keep going and need to be asked to stop most of the time.” Coatings are Kamal’s specialty and his passion. One minute with him and you will question how little you knew about materials science and about coatings. Kamal was born and raised in India by his two very supportive parents. He received his materials engineering degree from IIT, Banaras Hindu University, (BHU), India before earning a Full British research scholarship to the UK to pursue Ph.D. in material science and engineering. He has edited six books, obtained 32 USA patents and published over 200 technical scientific peer reviewed papers in various national and international Journals. He was awarded the prestigious “John Chipman Award” for best technical paper for fundamental contributions in the science and technology of materials processing, by AIME. “John Chipman award” is instituted in the honor of renowned Professor John Chipman of Materials Science and engineering department at MIT, USA. Dr Upadhya has taught as a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago USA and has lectured worldwide. For his scientific contributions, Dr Upadhya has been elected Fellow of American Society of Materials (FASM), Fellow of Institute of Materials (U.K.) FIM, C.Eng and has been bestowed with numerous scientific awards including U.N. visiting lectureship award.  “I came to the United States in 1981,” tells Kamal. “Induction Coupled Plasma (ICP) and a technical paper on plasma sintering of ceramic materials were published on the cover page of the Journal of Materials as well as on Ceramic Bulletin Magazines. That created an earthquake of interest in my work and my plasma research” He spent 6 years at GE Medical System where he obtained 16 USA patents for Thin film coatings on various x-ray tubes and CT scanner components. In 1992 he moved to California and worked with Hughes STX Corporation and Plasma Technology Inc. as VP of Technology. Finally he opened his own plasma coating company for coating aircraft turbine engine and compressor blades. The demand for Kamal’s expertise was so high that ACT purchased his company as part of their expansion program.

Within the next few months ACT is adding two dedicated diamond like carbon (DLC) and Tetrahedral Diamond (Ta-C) coating machines to their list of capabilities. Diamond like coatings is a ballooning industry,” describes Dr. Kamal. “Automotive and aerospace are leading the way utilizing this next generation of technologically advanced coating. Diamond like carbon coatings are done on 65% of engine components in most automotive applications. You can attribute the recent increase in fuel mileage directly to coatings and reduced frictions and decrease in energy loss.” Coatings are making metal harder, allowing the use of lighter materials, reducing overall weight. The same can be said for the aircraft industry. “Thanks to these new coatings we are able to machine composites materials in new ways. Just compare the composites on a 747 to a new 787 and you will see a noticeable difference. It will not be an exaggeration to say that modern coatings have become “materials in search of solutions.” It has brought a revolution in the toolmaking industries world wide.” ACT has one machine now that will do the diamond coating, but the time it takes to switch over and back is over 8 hours so they are adding two dedicated DLC and Diamond coating machines to increase productivity and capabilities.

Friction and corrosion cost industry hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Much of that cost can be avoided with the right coating. “Kamal comes in and dazzles customers with science and I follow up with highlighted points on how that science will benefit them as a user,” explains Kristin. “Kamal is a hard act to follow, you can tell how excited he gets by the science and by speaking to people about the possibilities.” To compete in the coatings arena you have to provide something different than the rest of crowds. ACT feels that providing an in-house development lab headed up by a world leader in coatings is just the thing needed to succeed.