By Dennis M. Zogbi, president of Paumanok Publications Inc.
PASSIVE COMPONENT INDUSTRY MAY/JUNE 2005
IRC’s Corpus Christi facility houses advanced thin and thick film resistor technology for specialty applications in a variety of value-added and application specific end-use market segments.
IRC’s Advanced Film Division (IRC-AFD) is located in Corpus Christi, Texas, and represents one of the most advanced resistor manufacturing operations in North America. The company produces both thin and thick film resistors, employing both base and precious metals for resistive elements. They use a variety of substrates, including ceramic, silicon and aluminum. The factory in Corpus Christi has 253 employeess. Revenue growth in the Advanced Film Division was approximately 8% in 2004 on a year- over-year basis and the operation was profitable.
IRC Corporation was founded in Philadelphia in 1923, and purchased by TRW Corporation in 1968. The company was in turn acquired by Crystalate LLC in 1986 and by TT Electronics in a hostile take-over ocurring in 1990. TT Electronics is a British-based holding company, which also includes IRC-Wirewound and Film Technologies Division, Welwyn Components Limited, BI Technologies, MMG Corporation, Neosid and Optek. TT Electronics’ total electronic component sales in 2004 were approximately $1.2 billion USD.
The company currently manufactures 4 resistor product groups destined primarily for the automotive, computer and defense industries. These product groups include tantalum nitride thin film resistors (36%), copper thick film resistors (35%), platinum temperature sensors (26%), and a small resale products operation (3%), where certain products are purchased from other vendors and sold by the company. Tantalum nitride resistors are a major strength for the company, as the metal offers extremely tight tolerances (down to 0.01%). The components are considered value-added precision, with average selling prices in the $0.50 range for each part. The company also produces an advanced line of thick film resistors based on copper paste, produced captively by IRC with copper powder and flake purchased from the merchant market.
The primary technology platforms noted at this plant center on sputtering of tantalum nitride resistive elements on ceramic and silicon substrates for thin-film resistor applications, and thick film resistor products based on copper film technology. The company is also skilled in applying both thin and thick film resistive layers in ceramic, silicon and aluminum substrates. The copper thick film product line is just as unique as the tantalum nitride thin-film product line–the resistors do not rely on precious metals (like ruthenium and palladium), used by other vendors. The company produces their own thick film pastes in house from purchased copper powders and flakes. Their tantalum nitride process is quite advanced and requires advanced clean room environments and processing similar to that found in the semiconductor industry.
Sales by End-Use Market Segment:
IRC’s Advanced Film Division sells the majority of its resistors to the automotive electronic subassemblies market segment (45%), followed by the computer segment (includes power supplies, battery chargers and laptop computers) (24%), military/aerospace (14%), instrumentation and control (10%), medical test/scan equipment (4%), and telecommunications infrastructure equipment (including subscriber line interface cards) (3%). According to the company, many years ago, about 90% of revenue was from the sale of precision resistor products to the defense industry; in 2004 (as shown in the following graph), defense revenues account for only 14% of the business, while automotive and computer end-use markets now account for a combined 69% of total revenues. IRC notes that as time progressed, both the automotive and computer markets needed precision resistors to keep up with changing demands. Other markets that also required very precise resistors include instrumentation and control equipment, medical test/scan equipment, and telecommunications infrastructure equipment, drawing IRC into these markets as well.
Revenues by World Region:
IRC AFD sells the majority of its product lines in North America (85%), followed by the Far East (13%) and Europe (2%). The company has seen growth in its product lines in Asia and may consider building a factory somewhere in Asia in the future. European sales are small because the product line is handled by their sister company Welwyn (out of England); Welwyn manufactures their own resistors and prefers to sell those, as opposed to the IRC product line. The company sees significant growth opportunities for their precision resistor products in rapidly expanding Chinese automotive markets.
The IRC Advanced Film Division sells approximately 68% of its product line direct to large customers in automotive electronics, computer, defense/aerospace, instrumentation and control and telecommunications infrastructure equipment applications. The remaining 32% of revenues is derived from sales to large global distributors of passive electronic components. The company noted there was a 15% reduction in revenues in 3rd and 4th quarter 2004, due to decreased demand from global distributors. The company noted sales for Q1 2005 should be flat to up slightly on a quarter-to-quarter basis. Distributors are making purchases again, but their patterns for 2005 are unpredictable, most likely as a result of difficulty in determining proper inventory levels for both lead-free and lead bearing resistors (this would apply to all passive components).
IRC AFD is considered unique in the resistor business because of their focus on thin-film resistors and resistor networks, robust precision thick film resistors, and innovation in tight tolerance resistor development that has been critical in the development of key defense, automotive and instrumentation and control products.
Tantalum Thin-film Resistors:
IRC AFD is known in the global resistor industry as a primary producer of tantalum nitride thin-film resistors on silicon, ceramic and metal substrates. Senior technical personnel who work at IRC AFD were instrumental in the development of tantalum nitride thin-film resistors by Bell Laboratories (in Indianapolis, Indiana) more than 25 years ago. The product was developed by Bell Labs as a precision resistor for field applications that were not effected by humidity, which has a tendency to destroy nichrome metal film resistors in the field. Thin-film resistors produced by IRC AFD truly are thin in comparison to other resistive elements. The company notes they can produce films from 300 to 1000Å thick, which at its thinnest is about 50 atoms stacked on top of each other. The other benefits of using tantalum in resistors are its high melting point (3000°C), the fact that resistance values will not begin to change until 2000°C, and that the TaN resistive element is self-passivating, resisting shorts. Although the majority of thin-film resistor production at IRC AFD is TaN based, the company also has the ability to sputter aluminum,
For tantalum nitride, different substrates may be applied which ultimately affect performance or price. TaN on a ceramic substrate provides the end-user with tight tolerances, tight TCR, high stability and mechanical strength, and can be produced in low-profile designs. Silicon substrates are specified when high ohmic values are required, or lower cost is necessary when compared to the ceramic substrate. The company can produce these thin-film resistors in traditional resistor network configurations, like isolated, bussed, R2R ladder networks and voltage dividers.
The company can also produce thin-film resistors in flip chip packages with ball grid arrays to customer specifications. Sample customers of the tantalum thin-film resistor product-line include Hella Lighting, National Instruments, GE Medical Systems, Cisco Systems, IBM and General Dynamics.
Platinum Temperature Sensors:
IRC AFD produces a unique platinum temperature sensor module for General Motors. The patent for this design is owned by General Motors produced by IRC AFD under a sole source arrangement. The sensor module is used for mass airflow temperature control with rapid response time and helps GM meet certain EPA regulations. The design replaces older bulk ceramic modules using crimped wire as the resistive element. Concerns at GM were over the ceramic nature of older technology and its tendency to crack. GM approached IRC AFD and asked them to produce millions of mass airflow resistor assemblies per year. Although the automotive market segment represents the largest portion of demand for platinum temperature sensors, IRC notes they produce a chip version (platinum on silicon) for temperature compensation for additional customers like JDS Uniphase (Telecom), Mettler-Toledo (load cell), Schlumberger (downhole pump) and Rosemount (flow meter head). IRC notes the platinum on silicon chip they produce is very precise, with a very linear temperature response. The product is finding new applications in temperature compensation every day.
Thick film Resistors:
IRC AFD produces thick film resistors from a proprietary copper paste they manufacture in Corpus Christi. The company can also produce tin-oxide thick film resistors and nitrogen fired cermet (precious metal-based) resistors. Substrates are either 99.5% or 99.6% alumina. Primary applications for the thick film resistor product line are for current sensing applications in voltage regulators, battery packs, hard disc drives, automotive lighting, automotive fuel pump shut-off, automotive seat heaters, motorized seats and window lift motors. New developments at IRC AFD in thick film resistors include the Anotherm® resistor, designed for LED (light emitting diode) applications. The Anotherm® resistor enables LED lights to produce more light with less heat. Paumanok Publications, Inc. believes that this technology holds tremednous promise for the company. IRC Advanced Film Division of TT Electronics is a unique resistive component manufacturer. With the ability to take standard resistive technology and move into nontypical component manufacturing, AFD is the leader in its field of expertise. IRC AFD is moving into more custom applications with their tantalum nitiride, platinum temperature sensor and thick film technology capabilities.
Additional Resources: (1) Linear Resistors: World Markets, Technologies & Opportunities: 2009-2014 ISBN # 1-893211-24-X (7/2009) (2) Resistor Networks, Arrays and The Trend Toward Integration: Global Markets 2004-2008 ISBN # 1-893211-77-0 (2004)