SACO, MAINE - North American sales of computer discs - for audio and read-only applications - are growing by nearly 13 percent a year, and First Light Technologies Inc. is helping to drive that growth through its production system. First Light, a maker of cellular manufacturing equipment, is helping manufacturers around the world change the way CDs are made, according to President Art LeBlanc.
It is difficult to control the atmosphere and temperature in huge clean room plants, and it is extremely expensive to keep them clean. So First Light and several other machinery makers have developed distinct manufacturing cells that can produce CDs and CD-ROMs in large or small lots.
``No one is installing the big clean rooms anymore. These new units have self-contained clean rooms integrated with each injection molding machine,'' LeBlanc said in an interview at First Light's offices in Saco.
Manufacturing CDs is an exacting and delicate process that requires high-quality molding of polycarbonate and extremelyclean conditions for metallizing molded discs.
More than 1.5 billion discs - both audio discs and CD-ROM discs - were made in North America in 1994. An estimated 1.7 billion discs are expected to be made in 1995.
Shipments of CD-ROM discs more than tripled in 1994, leaping to 53.9 million units from 16.5 million units in the previous year, according to the market research data firm Dataquest of San Jose, Calif. Most of the CDs are made in single-cavity molds because of the exacting molding conditions that must be maintained.
The concept of using distinct manufacturing cells to make CDs first was devised by a company in the Netherlands - Optical Disc Manufacturing Equipment - according to Dick Wilkinson, president of Optical Disc Corp. of Santa Fe Springs, Calif.
Other companies adopted the concept, including Krauss Maffei Kunstofftechnik GmbH of Munich, Germany, one of FirstLight's biggest worldwide competitors. But First Light is the only North American company to do so, Wilkinson said. First Light introduced its first manufacturing cell shortly after the company was launched in 1989.
In June, First Light Technologies is planning to introduce its latest version of CD manufacturing cells - its Uniline 3000 machine, according to Barry Potter, a director of First Light and president of Netstal Machinery Inc. of Fitchburg, Mass. Potter was a principal in founding First Light Technologies, a subsidiary of Netstal that is 62 percent owned by the company.
The Uniline 3000 will have cycle times of 2-21/4 seconds per CD, Potter said. It will be introduced June 13 at Replitech International in Santa Clara, Calif.
LeBlanc said First Light's Uniline 2000 manufacturing cell has a 4-second cycle, a time he said First Light achieved by taking the concept of a distinct manufacturing cell a step further.
His company developed its own spin-coating equipment, transfer equipment and other products used to make the cells, rather than relying on off-the-shelf ancillary equipment, Le-Blanc said. By doing so, it is able to ensure quality and high speed, he claimed.
First Light's manufacturing cells are self-contained units that include a Netstal injection molding press, metallization and spin-coating equipment and transfer devices to move the discs from molding stations to other work areas.
Unlike the huge factory-sized clean rooms that marked CD manufacturing through the 1980s, manufacturing cells can be controlled closely to keep the CDs free of dirt while maintaining high quality in both molding and metal-coating operations, LeBlanc said.
Also, LeBlanc said, such manufacturing cells are far less costly to establish and maintain than factory clean rooms.
While large clean room manufacturing operations are in place at such sites as WEA Manufacturing Co. in Olyphant, Pa., and Sony Digital/Audio Disc Corp. in Terre Haute, Ind., the technology is considered passe, and even those companies are moving toward discrete manufacturing cells for their expansions.
Besides, LeBlanc added, the proliferation of CD-ROMs, which increasingly are replacing floppy disks as formats for computer programs, and the expected onset of CD video discs have increased the number of small CD manufacturers. Such small manufacturers often find one or two CD manufacturing cells more affordable than a clean room, Le-Blanc said.
LeBlanc said First Light now has installations of its manufacturing cells at 75 sites around the world, and is looking for the majority of its growth in North America as demands and markets for CD-ROM and CD videos expand.
Potter pointed out that Netstal has sold 157 CD manufacturing machines since January 1993 - including 52 in 1994, and 69 ordered or booked for 1995. That represents the capacity to make 630 million CDs a year, he said.