Ionic Fusion Corp. is taking its first commercial steps to reach mold makers looking for a unique mold-impregnating process.
Just celebrating its second birthday, the Longmont, Colo.-based company already has worked in the development stage with some 60 companies, most notably large end users such as Intel Corp., Motorola Inc. and Honeywell Inc.
It has taken some baby steps with a few tool shops, most notably on a project that involved mold maker Caco Pacific Corp. of Covina, Calif., and Gillette Co. of Boston.
But now comes the real test, said Ionic Fusion President Joe Ryan. The firm plans to boost its presence with mold makers to become a full-fledged, sales-generating company, he said.
``We have a promising start,'' Ryan said. ``We're moving quickly from a development stage to a sales and growth stage. The installations have been progressing well.''
The company has a product that might need some explaining to many old-line toolmakers. The firm, showcasing its technology at the Moldmaking 2003 Expo in Cleveland, held April 30-May 1, uses atoms and molecules to harden a mold and protect it from wear.
The process, called ionic plasma deposition, starts with the tool being placed into a chamber filled with a plasma solution. An accelerator is turned on, and ions are shifted and redistributed through an electron catalyst. The controlled energy is used to impregnate a piece of metal into the mold or another substrate. The company has used nickel, zirconium nitride and titanium to strengthen a mold.
John Petersen, process creator and Ionic Fusion chief technology officer, said the vacuum chamber is so resilient that it can impregnate almost any material with metal. To prove that point, a piece of toilet paper once was impregnated with titanium, Petersen said.
``Not that you'd want to use it,'' he said. ``But it's an excellent example.''
The metal infusion strengthens the mold finish and creates less friction on the surface, Petersen said. The mold is corrosion-resistant and toughened by the metalizing process, slightly similar to the electroplating of a mold but without the need for heat, he said.
The process also is being used to coat products besides tooling, Petersen said. Those include the wiring used for fuel cells and circuit boards, polypropylene mesh for medical applications requiring anti-bacterial surfaces and the shielding on antennae.
That leads to the project's origins. Petersen developed the ion chamber while working on a radio-frequency wave guide for an F-16 plane, he said. The intricate control mechanism was impregnated with nickel to help conductivity. Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., took interest and helped fund development.
The process worked so well that Petersen's company, Longmont-based stereolithography provider Rapid Prototyping Corp., decided to make a business from it. In April 2001, Ionic Fusion was spun off into a separate company.
NASA is evaluating uses of the technology to impregnate radio devices with metal for better transmission, said Ryan, a former executive with a company making radio-frequency identification technology.
But the technology's abilities to harden tool metal represents an immediate growth opportunity, Ryan said. Recently, two companies in the Detroit area installed the equipment for tooling applications, and more are coming, he said.
Ionic Fusion has seven employees in its Longmont office, most of them representatives calling on a variety of customers. They have some explaining to do.
``It's really different,'' Ryan said. ``Part of it is about electrons and protons and a catalytic reaction. But a lot of what we do is about helping materials last a lot longer.''