October 11, 2023
At MECHATRONICS TECHNOLOGY JAPAN (MECT) 2023, three companies play key roles in the organizer’s special program (Concept Zone) by presenting their machining technologies. FURUKAWA CERAMICS (Agano City, Niigata Prefecture; President: Kosaku Furukawa), one of these companies, has the strength of being able to supply parts made of fine ceramics, which are difficult to machine, with a high degree of precision. Using grinding machines from Okamoto Machine Tool Works, the company machines large workpieces for semiconductor manufacturing equipment, flattening the surfaces with precision technology. In the Concept Zone, where “Machining Extraordinaires” are on display, visitors are invited to watch a demonstration of the company’s skillful grinding of workpieces.
In the Concept Zone of MECT2023, visitors can see the grinding process of fine ceramics firsthand. The workpiece to be processed is an example of a circular part for semiconductor manufacturing equipment, 800 mm in diameter, 35 mm thick, and 70 kg in weight, and the surface of the large workpiece is ground uniformly flat using a grinding machine. Fine ceramics are extremely difficult to machine, and there are only a few companies in Japan that can produce high-precision products.
One of these companies appearing in the Concept Zone is FURUKAWA CERAMICS, which was established in 2011. The company has grown rapidly in the 10 years since its establishment and has about 90 machine tools, including 5-axis machining centers (MCs) and grinding machines. The company specializes in machining medium to large workpieces of any shape, such as square or round.
At MECT 2023, the company demonstrates its technological capabilities with the “PRG8-iQ” rotary surface grinder from Okamoto Machine Tool Works. Fine ceramics are easily cracked during machining due to their fragility, but the PRG8-iQ enables stable flat grinding. Mr. Furukawa, President of FURUKAWA CERAMICS, explains, “In general, it is difficult just to grind the surface evenly, and only a grinder designed for machining ceramics can do it. But even the most sophisticated machine is useless if you do not master its operation. Highly accurate products can only be delivered if there is both a machine capable of high-precision machining and the technical skills to operate it.”
Fine ceramics are non-metallic materials with high strength, heat resistance and insulating properties. They are made from highly refined raw powder, which is then shaped and sintered into products through a complex molding and sintering process. Since fine ceramics are harder than metals, diamond grinding wheels are used to machine them. By changing the type of raw material and the mixing method, the properties of fine ceramics can be tailored to suit the application. For this reason, fine ceramics have been used in a wide variety of applications. In particular, the growth of the market related to semiconductors and their manufacturing equipment has led to an increased interest in fine ceramics.
While different materials have different properties, alumina (aluminum oxide, Al2O3) is very versatile. The workpieces processed at Concept Zone are also made of alumina, and like metalworking, they are cut and polished to produce parts, but the process creates dust particles that must be carefully controlled. “Tiny powders stick to the machine, causing it to bite and rust. We prevent breakdowns by performing frequent maintenance on the machines and thoroughly filtering the grinding fluid,” explains President Furukawa.
The main materials of workpieces machined at FURUKAWA CERAMICS are alumina, silicon carbide (SiC), aluminum nitride, etc. More than 90% of its orders are related to semiconductor manufacturing equipment, and the company also produces hand parts for industrial robots that transport semiconductor substrates.
To further increase production, the company invests in equipment and increases the number of machines by about 10 each year. Expanding the number of machines is essential because the required accuracy of the products is high, and it takes a long time to machine each one. President Furukawa explains, “In some cases, including material procurement, it takes more than six months to make a prototype, and then the product is subjected to quality inspection by the customer. We manage both operators and equipment based on data to ensure mass production while maintaining a certain level of quality.
In addition to the processing machines, the company also has a large number of measuring machines. “We have a total of seven coordinate measuring machines (CMMs), as well as a surface roughness tester and a vision measuring machine. In order to meet the accuracy requirements of our customers, we have established a strict inspection system,” says President Furukawa.
When the company was first founded, it rented a corner of a warehouse in Niigata City and set up three machines to process parts. At first, the company struggled to get orders, but in its third year, it received a request from a company within Niigata Prefecture to machine parts. “We spent a lot of time and worked very hard. The parts we supplied went into mass production, and our sales quadrupled,” recalls President Furukawa. This led to an increase in orders and stabilized the company’s performance, and today it does business with about 60 companies. The number of employees has also grown from three at the time of the company’s founding to about 100, including four affiliated companies.
Semiconductor structures are becoming finer and finer to achieve higher computing speeds and power savings. Even in Japan, many companies are focusing on developing new technologies for manufacturing next-generation semiconductors. President Furukawa emphasizes, “The accuracy requirements for components are increasing, and machines capable of micromachining are becoming necessary. We intend to deepen our understanding of machine characteristics and seek new machining technologies.”
Quality assurance is also becoming more important. FURUKAWA CERAMICS has been analyzing how defects and quality failures occur in each process, from order entry to delivery. “We are working not only to improve our machining techniques, but also, and just as importantly, to improve our production system,” explains President Furukawa. “We want to have a system that allows us to respond immediately to problems as they occur and ensure a stable supply of highly accurate parts,” he says enthusiastically.
The semiconductor industry continues to demand even higher precision components. It is exciting to see how fine ceramics, which can only be machined with extraordinary machining technology, are handled in the Concept Zone.
SEISANZAI Japan editorial team