A Finnish nanotech story.
Beneq®‘s name comes from “ben·eq”: Latin for good equipment. Our story starts from 1984.
1984 – The world’s first industrial production with ALD
In 1984, Lohja Corporation (Oy Lohja Ab) built a new electronics factory in Espoo, Finland (the building was to become Beneq’s headquarters 28 years later, but we will return to that part of the story a little bit later, when we will also explain why we count the history of Beneq in seconds). The purpose for the construction of a new manufacturing plant was to start production of revolutionary thin displays based on a new technology, atomic layer deposition.
Atomic Layer Deposition, ALD, had been invented in Finland in the seventies. Originally called Atomic Layer Epitaxy, it had been developed forward by another Finnish conglomerate, Instrumentarium, and now it found its first industrial application: thin film electroluminescent displays, which Lohja Corporation started selling under its iconic TV brand, Finlux. Electroluminescent display modules from the factory were delivered for example to the Helsinki-Vantaa airport where they served in the departure hall without a single failure for two decades.
Over 30 years on, the production of next generation rugged electroluminescent displays is still going strong under the same roof, now under Beneq’s Lumineq display brand. But we are getting ahead ourselves again…
Building the first ALD coating equipment
In 1990, Nokia, probably the best known Finnish company ever, had spinned out its cable equipment business to a joint venture with Maillefer. The joint company with a long history in industrial equipment manufacturing was renamed Nextrom in 1998. It is where the three founders of Beneq, JP, Sampo and Tommi, met and learned by doing the basics of global industrial equipment production. An idea about making a separate business of technology commercialization and bespoke manufacturing equipment started to form.
Nextrom during the late 90’s and early years of the new millennium was an excellent school for international business, advanced equipment manufacturing, project organization, and supply chain management. The equipment business grew extremely fast and the Nextrom equipment team had to design and build complicated equipment solutions for demanding customers at an exhausting pace. Project management was complex – to say the very least – and many things had to be built and tested for the first time during customer projects. This served as a great learning ground for the team that was to start Beneq a few years later.
In the meantime, Atomic Layer Deposition and ALD equipment had been progressing in a company called Mikrokemia, which had been founded in 1987 by Neste Oy (again, one of the largest Finnish companies) to research the use of ALD in surface chemistry, catalysts and solar cells. Mikrokemia was later sold to ASM International from the Netherlands, renamed ASM Microchemistry Oy, and focused on developing semiconductor applications of ALD.
The ALD-based display manufacturing continued in the Espoo factory under the wings of Lohja Corporation until 1993, when the display operations were sold to a US company, Planar Systems. Planar continued the electroluminescent display business, but also started to sell as a business of its own the ALD reactors that had been developed in Espoo for the display production.
2005 – The start of Beneq
And now it all starts to come together.
In 2005, Nextrom updates its strategy and decides to focus on the company’s core operations. An internal venture team that has been developing a business of turning innovations into success by helping companies in testing, piloting and manufacturing of new industrial products does not fit Nextrom’s updated plans, and an opportunity rises for the team to buy out the industrialization service business.
In March 2005, three Nextrom employees spend a long weekend at Ruka in Finnish Lapland skiing less than they had planned (in the end, there was just business planning and no skiing at all) and come out with the decision to start a company of their own. On May 1st, 2005, the new company officially starts and gets a name from the idea of engineering excellent equipment, bene eq.
The first engineering team of Beneq is built around former design engineers of ASM Microchemistry, who had joined Nextrom to work with MCVD (Modified Chemical Vapor Deposition) based optical fibers after ASM moved their equipment design and engineering operations from Finland to Phoenix in USA.
Partly due to the ALD background of some of the early Beneq engineers, partly due to the similarities of the ALD and MCVD technologies, the first equipment built by Beneq is a new type of an ALD reactor. It is sold in July, 2005, to the Micronova Centre for Micro and Nanotechnology, which is today jointly run by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Aalto University.
Beneq’s business becomes international right from the start. Already the second equipment order comes from abroad, from South Korea. The second project is an important milestone in two ways.
Firstly, it is about aerosol coating equipment and paves the way for the aerosol thin film equipment business, which has played a major part in Beneq’s history, and today offers advanced wet film deposition equipment for anti-reflection coating of glass and solar cells. The foundations of the aerosol business are further strengthened in 2006 when Beneq acquires the aerosol business of ABR Innova Oy.
Secondly, the delivery of aerosol equipment to Asia enforces the global thinking at Beneq and shows that even a small Finnish company can sell to the largest companies in the world when the product is good and the ambition level high enough. International sales and a global market focus has been the norm at Beneq ever since. In 2016, 98% of Beneq’s turnover came from outside Finland.
It has not always been easy…
Young Beneq achieved fast growth and by 2010, when the company turned five, it had grown to be a 10-million-euro company with 60 employees. The sales agent network was expanding and Beneq had started sales offices in Germany, USA and China. Some of the pilot customers Beneq gained were among the largest companies in the world – Asahi Glass and Philips to mention just a couple of examples.
But there were also challenging times. Beneq succeeded in creating many thin film products and processes that were unique and beat world-records in ALD substrate size and quality, but all the new equipment models were not sales successes.
Some of the business and R&D focus choices for new ALD applications also turned out to be wrong. Beneq was boldly taking the ALD technology to new areas, and while the solution was often recognized as excellent and far superior than competing technologies, the customers were conservative and did not want to take risks with new technology. Sometimes they simply couldn’t make the necessary investments due to the economy. This taught the team valuable lessons about how superior technology alone is not enough to ensure business growth.
…but we have seen plenty of success too
On the other hand, some of the new equipment models created during the early years of Beneq, such as the Beneq TFS 200 research reactor, which was launched in 2007, have become popular and are still sold today. Beneq also sold the first industrial ALD tools as early as in 2006 (a Beneq TFS 500 to Kalevala Koru for anti-tarnish coating of silver), when other manufacturers were still working with research reactors only.
The early industrial solutions emphasized the importance of working in close cooperation with the customers from the first idea until volume production. These learnings served as proof about both the viability of industrial ALD and the thin film service business model, and planted a seed for the future strategy of Beneq.
Beneq has received many awards along the way. In 2008, Beneq was voted “Best Growth Company in Finland” in a competition organized by Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily paper in Finland. In 2009, Beneq was listed as one of the 50 most promising cleantech companies in the Nordics by the Cleantech Group and Cleantech Scandinavia, 2011 Beneq was announced winner of Red Herrings Global Top 100, and so on. These acknowledgements have not paid anybody’s salaries, but have motivated the company forward on the chosen path.
In 2011, Beneq received the Internationalization Award of the President of the Republic of Finland, one of the most prestigious awards presented to a company or community that has actively participated in developing international Finland. Beneq is probably the only company to have two of these awards in the lobby of the headquarters; Planar Systems also received the same award (The Export Award of the President as it was then called) already in 1996.
Moving to the Home of ALD
In 2007, Beneq acquires the ALD business of Planar Systems, and starts ALD operations in the Espoo factory, where the industrial production of ALD-based displays had started in the eighties. This was the starting point of a close cooperation between Beneq and Planar and allowed Beneq to expand the thin film development services. Today, the service business forms one of the cornerstones of the company strategy of finding new applications for thin film coatings and growing with the customers as the new applications turn from research projects to industrial solutions.
In 2012, Beneq acquires the whole ALD factory and the electroluminescent display business from Planar, and launches the new Lumineq®brand for the reliable electroluminescent displays for extreme conditions. The Espoo factory, the Home of ALD, becomes Beneq headquarters. An important part of Finnish high tech history becomes Finnish again. The circle closes.
33 years and still ticking
The history above explains why we like to call Beneq a teenager with over 30 years of experience. And that brings us back to why we tend to count time in seconds.
When you visit our factory in Espoo and enter the clean room area where we keep our 40 ALD machines, one thing you will notice is the constant ticking sound from the conventional batch ALD equipment. Those are the pulses of precursor gases in the equipment chambers ticking, producing new nanocoatings layer by layer. It is one of the very characteristics that define the atmosphere of the factory floor at the Home of ALD. Tick. Tick. Tick.
The time between the gas pulses (the ticks) is counted in seconds; it typically takes a couple of seconds for each pulse to pass the chamber. A couple of years ago, somebody walking through the factory floor wondered out loud: How many ticks like that would fit in the over 30 years we have run ALD equipment in this building? How thick a coating would the result be?
Naturally, we had to count. It turns out that our factory is – you guessed it – about one billion seconds old. When a Beneq P400 ALD reactor is used for Al2O3 coatings (a typical material for example in moisture barriers), the normal cycle time (two gas pulses) is approximately 5 seconds. That means 200 million cycles in the 33 years our factory has been running.
200 million ALD cycles is an impressive figure, but to get an idea about how extremely thin our thin films are, let’s continue the calculation. Each atomic layer is about 0,1 nanometers thin and one nanometer is one billionth of a meter. That means the 200 million layers would only add up to a total thickness of 2 centimeters of coating. Yes, that is correct, 2 cm of coating in 33 years. Building a thinner world layer by layer demands persistence!
The Beneq strategy
From the very early days of Beneq, it has been clear to the team that succeeding in turning high technology innovations into successful industrial applications means doing what others have not done. Often it means being the first in the world to even try. In fact, when the first Beneq strategy started to form after 2005 and Beneq decided to concentrate on taking a proven technology from research labs to large-area industrial solutions, many ALD experts claimed it could not be done. Equipment like Beneq TFS 1200 would be impossible to make, they said, and production costs would be dramatically too high. Well, we went on and did it anyway.
It is deep in our culture to constantly find new use cases for thin films, from new material structures to completely new innovative products, but we also want to make sure that the solutions can be implemented in mass production. Whether it is expanding the product life of a flexible OLED displays, improving the efficiency of solar cells or enhancing cockpit safety with transparent Lumineq displays, the goal always is to make our customers’ products function better.
The way we achieve this is still the same as it was in the early days of Beneq (and the early days of Lohja and Mikrokemia for that matter – many of the pioneers from those companies are still with us today): We take new ideas all the way from concepts to commercial applications, from lab to fab, from research to production. This has also resulted in a large IPR portfolio.
Ready for a bright future
Today Beneq leads the market with innovative solutions for advanced R&D (TFS 200, R2), flexible high-volume manufacturing (BENEQ TransformTM), ultra-fast high precision spatial ALD coatings (C2R), roll-to-roll thin film coating of continuous webs (WCS 600), and specialized batch production for thicker film stacks (P400, P800). Headquartered in Espoo, Finland Beneq is dedicated to making ALD technology accessible for researchers and enabling technology mega trends through engineered ALD materials solutions.
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