After decades in the semiconductor industry, technologist Jim Kapnias decided to pursue the potential of smart cards.
Now, he is guiding the start-up of a new California plant that will have the eventual capability to make 16 million to 20 million cards per year.
Kapnias founded American Microdevice Manufacturing Inc. in 1992 to make traditional multichip modules, but he switched technologies in 1993. He embarked on a path to make the computer-chip-embedded plastic cards that aim to replace conventional magnetic-strip cards. He serves as AMMI's chief technology officer.
Closed systems at transit agencies, universities and military installations are targeted as early users of smart cards in the United States. Smart cards already are popular in Europe for prepaid telephone calls and many other applications.
A variety of semiconductor chip types can be embedded between two pre-printed ABS labels, and ABS is injected between the labels to form a 0.8-millimeter-thick card, Kapnias said.
``The worldwide market is going bananas,'' Kapnias said in a telephone interview from AMMI's 20,000-square-foot facility in San Jose, Calif. ``In the U.S., systems for various applications are under design, and the market is picking up significantly.''
For AMMI, general contractor Sempac SA of Cham, Switzerland, installed a $2 million line that includes a Netstal 90-ton, four-cavity SynErgy 900 injection molding machine, an ESEC epoxy die bonder, an ESEC gold wire bonder, and a Fico multiplunger transfer molder. AMMI has another complete Sempac-organized smart-card line temporarily occupying borrowed space in Santa Clara, Calif.
ESEC, the European Semiconductor Equipment Center, is Sempac's parent and is also in Cham. Netstal-Maschinen AG is based in NÃ¤fels, Switzerland. Fico BV is located in Zevenaar, the Netherlands.
AMMI manufactures both cards with contact points and others with a contactless arrangement. Also, AMMI provides its own Amos operating system applications, system integration, printing and artwork services.
A printing line will arrive in mid-August, and the firm will ``have full printing capacity in-house by the end of the year,'' Kapnias said. The line will have capability to print in the single-card mode and in sheet form for pre-printed ABS labels.
Privately owned AMMI has a joint venture, AMMI Singapore Pte. Ltd., with Jurong Technology Industry Co. of Singapore.
AMMI Singapore opened in October, and operates an identical Sempac smart-card line in a 10,000-square-foot facility.
AMMI employs 25 in the California facilities. The joint venture employs eight in Singapore.
Numerous firms compete globally in the production of smart cards, smart readers and software. Gemplus SA of Gémenos, France, and Schlumberger Ltd.'s electronic transactions unit in Montrouge, France, are among the largest.