Jena is one of the prestigious centers of high-tech development in Germany. The city in the picturesque valley of the Saale River in Thuringia is famous for the university, which was founded in the 16th century, and also for the optical-mechanical industry, leading its history from the workshop of Carl Zeiss. After the Second World War, the VEB Carl Zeiss Jena was one of the largest factories in the GDR and produced high-precision optical equipment and instruments, which were used, specifically in Soyuz-22 spacecraft and MIR Orbital Station. After the reunification of Germany a lot of high-tech private enterprises started its operations in Jena. In the field of vacuum technology the most successful project is VACOM Vakuum Komponenten & Messtechnik GmbH which was founded in 1992 by Dr. Ute Bergner. Over the last two decades, the family-run trading enterprise has grown to a production company with a staff of about 200 people. Currently VACOM has a production area of 3,000 sq.m with modern technological equipment as well as offices in Germany and Belgium. Activities and products of the company have received many awards, among them inclusion in the Top 30 of Germany’s most innovative mid-sized companies, Rudolf Jaeckel Prize of the German Vacuum Society in 2013, Grand Prix of Mid-Sized Businesses by the Oskar Patzelt Foundation in 2003 and 2013, the Fraunhofer Cleanliness Technology Award CLEAN! 2015, the awards for the best innovative product in high-technology industry of the Russian VacuumTechExpo exhibition, and many others. Quite recently, VACOM’s president Dr. Ute Bergner was honored with the "Ernst Abbe Prize for Innovative Entrepreneurship" 2015 by the Thuringian Minister for Economic Affairs. What are the ways to succeed in such a complex field, as the vacuum technology? This and other questions were answered by Dr. Ute Bergner, the founder and president of VACOM.
Dr. Bergner, how do you assess the market for vacuum equipment and what are the main trends in this field?
Vacuum technology is one of the markets showing steady growth. This is due to the trend in science and industry to work with structures and elements, which are becoming smaller and smaller, and this requires increasingly higher degrees of purity, from contaminant removal to cleanliness of the environment. Without vacuum equipment it is impossible to produce high-tech coatings, optical and electronic components that are anyway required in all sectors of the economy. The main trend is the growth in requirements, on the one hand, to the depth and purity of vacuum, on the other hand, to energy consumption and costs reduction.
What are the market positions of VACOM?
We manufacture and supply five groups of products: vacuum mechanics, i.e., vacuum chambers and special components; electrical feedthroughs; sensors and measuring devices; vacuum optics; ion getter pumps. In total, the range of products includes 70,000 items, of which about 20,000 are always available in stock. The most important target markets for us are the semiconductor industry, scientific research and particle acceleration technology. In Europe we are one of the leading suppliers of vacuum equipment for these sectors.
We believe that the priority is the development of measuring equipment and purity of the vacuum. These tasks are closely connected with the standardization, as, for example, oil and fat contaminations of the vacuum are currently not normalized. Our measurement equipment allows to determine standards for different applications of vacuum technology.
What is the basis for the success of VACOM?
Knowledge, quality and innovation create the basis. Knowledge and technical competence of our specialists enable us to find effective solutions to practical problems. The effectiveness is determined, on the one hand, taking into account the demand of the market, on the other hand, our costs. We pay very close attention to these issues and perform internal cost monitoring.
Quality from our point of view is achieved only when the parameters of the product conform to the specifications, and this applies both for products and processes. Quality control in our company is performed by an independent department. This allows to effectively detect errors and to analyze their reasons.
Innovation is not only invention, it must be useful for the market. For example, from the business point of view, universities can't be innovative, although they play a huge role in the development of science and technology. Considering it, we chose a business model, which assumes that all stages of projects will be carried out by our specialists. VACOM is an extraordinary company that implements all stages of development and production, including consulting and planning, construction and design, machining, assembly, quality control, surface treatment and cleaning, as well as verification of purity.
In addition, honesty is important in relationships, particularly when discussing technical issues with customers. You should always explicitly specify what you can surely do and what is not possible due to various reasons. If we say to the customer that the manufacturing accuracy is 1 nm, then geometric deviations must not exceed this value. If we claim that our production is clean, then not only the final products but also all manufacturing processes should meet this requirement.
What does the motto "Precision & Purity" mean?
We produce high-precision vacuum components with high purity and low residual outgassing. While the production area for machining and welding is more than 3,000 sq.m, the cleanroom area is 800 sq.m. Supply of clean vacuum components is an important advantage of VACOM, because our customers can rely on the required cleanliness of the equipment.
What other benefits are essential for your customers?
First, we offer products and technologies with unique characteristics. An important factor from this point of view is the effectiveness of the business model with the complete cycle of operations from development to production.
Secondly, we implement in practice the concept of "Industry 4.0". Our IT department consists of specialists who develop, adapt and implement the most modern digital technologies for the management and technological processes. Management information system, logistics management system, robotic warehouse and other automated solutions enhance our flexibility and reduce cost of production.
Thirdly, we are constantly investing in new technologies and have a large (by the standards of medium sized companies) department of research and development, staffed by about 25 employees. Thanks to their efforts, every year we present in the market new products and technologies, many of which have unique features. Due to high market dynamics, the devices that now are required in the field of research, in a year or two will be demanded in serial and mass production. Therefore, it is very important to go ahead of the market, anticipating future needs of customers. We are ready for change and constantly generate new ideas.
How is the quality control organised?
It is a multi-stage process that begins with the incoming inspection of raw materials, such as control of steel composition. A list of monitored parameters for each material is defined in test plans which are created in the management information system. Characteristics of the products are controlled by the employees of the production units when it passes through the processing chain and by quality control department at the stages pre-specified by the designers. Finished products undergo a final inspection, including visual inspection. Our quality management system is certified according to DIN EN ISO 9001:2008.
Which innovations of VACOM are most important from your point of view?
First I will note that innovations are important not only in the technique. In particular, we have found and use many new features in the management of the company. In the field of technical developments, I would like to note three groups of innovations: optical fiber feedthroughs, vacuum gauges and use of aluminum alloy in the production of vacuum chambers.
With the development of optical fiber feedthroughs for ultra high vacuum we have entered a new segment of the market – vacuum optics, which is becoming increasingly important with the development of optical detection and control of processes in vacuum. Difficulties in construction of the fiber feedthroughs are associated with the need of vacuum tight connection of optical fibers with metallic vacuum chambers. Optical fiber feedthrough must not only withstand high pressure and large temperature differences, but also enable excellent signal transmission. Our developments meet all these requirements, making it one of the best solutions on the market.
In the field of vacuum measurements our first product was the ATMION wide-range vacuum gauge. With the accumulation of experience, we started the production of the BARION hot cathode vacuum gauges, and our latest developments in this field are the COLDION cold cathode ionization gauges for particle accelerators and cryogenic systems. The unique feature of COLDION is the ability to measure in ultra-high vacuum up to 10–12 mbar, while the limit for competitive gauges is the range from 10–9 to 10–10 mbar. Our cleanliness measurement devices can determine the cleanliness of the surfaces of components with an accuracy of up to 0.3 ng/cm2. This achievement is also unique, because the detection limit of such devices is normally by two orders of magnitude higher.
The use of aluminum alloy instead of stainless steel, in my opinion, has great prospects in the production of vacuum equipment. Recent advances in the production of aluminum, in particular, the use of new alloys, has allowed to significantly increase its tensile strength, and even to surpass stainless steel in this terms. Another problem was the welding, because aluminum melts at 660°C, while an oxide layer on its surface has a melting point over 2000°C. We succeed in achieving the required quality of the weld and strength of welded joints. As a result, we can manufacture vacuum chambers and other parts completely of aluminum with much lower cost than with stainless steel. In comparison with steel, aluminum parts are characterized by low magnetic permeability and three times less weight. The latter allows to reduce the overheads when creating large vacuum systems significantly. According to our estimates, the replacement of steel by aluminum can reduce the costs of operation by up to 75%.
In many fields of technics European companies are no longer competitive with Chinese enterprises. What is the situation in vacuum technology?
When VACOM had no own production, we cooperated with manufacturers of vacuum equipment from China, and I am very thoroughly acquainted with the state of the Chinese vacuum industry. I think there are experienced scientists and technicians and the industry is making great efforts. Quality depends on the requirements of the customer and his need for reliability. For example, I attended the opening of a factory, which manufactures flanges, and I was impressed by the highly modern production, but after a while, they were not able to keep that level. This and the increasing technological requirements encouraged us to organize our own production. Now I can proudly state that, in terms of the cost-performance ratio, our products are very competitive with Chinese equipment and, of course, at a high quality standard.
How do you evaluate the Russian market of vacuum equipment?
The level of development in the field of vacuum technology in Russia is very high, which is natural for the country that first began the space exploration. In fact, your question can be rephrased as: "What VACOM can offer to the pioneer, to enable him to develop further his know-how and competence?" Such niches are available, for example, in the field of electric feedthroughs, metal-ceramic-joints for transmitting power or control signals to the vacuum chamber. We have also the historical connections between enterprises from Jena and Russia in the field of the supply of vacuum measuring devices in mind, but are faced with the difficulties of certification due to differences in standards. Although the European and in particular German standards are characterized by relatively high safety and technical requirements, they are not always fully consistent with the Russian and North American standards. I think that in order to solve this problem, appropriate administrative steps should be taken, and if this will be done, all market participants will benefit.
Also, our systems of measurement of the purity of the vacuum components are of growing interest in Russia, since, as already noted, purity requirements grow with decreasing size of the investigated or synthesized objects and structures. Germany is a leader in the field of clean solutions for science and industry, and our company has unique know-how as well as proven technologies and measuring devices.
It is necessary to mention the economic sanctions which certainly are harmful for German and Russian business. In these circumstances, some Russian companies try to work with suppliers from Eastern Asia, but they can't ensure quality and purity at the level of German companies.
How user support in Russia is organized?
In addition to our experienced Russian speaking customer managers, our technical experts are in constant contact with customers providing engineering support. As for service, most of our products do not require complicated maintenance. The vacuum gauges, for example, require periodic replacement of the filament, but users can easily perform it themselves. More complex measurement devices have interfaces for remote diagnostics which allow to solve most of the problems. If a serious repair is required, it is carried out by our partners in Russia.
Let me stress once again that Russia is an important market for us, and we have great expectations for its development in the future.