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‘Making the impossible possible’: Gift from Posalux SA sparks micromachining innovation at Concordia

Spark Assisted Chemical Engineering glass-etching technology inspired by global demand for personalized products
January 19, 2023
By Doug Sweet

A diptych of two men, one wearing a suit and tie with a Posalux SA logo in the background and the other wearing a blue dress shirt Marco Nadalin, head of Business Development for Posalux SA, and Rolf Wuthrich, associate professor at the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science | Photo by Posalux SA

Think of precision and chances are the image you’ll conjure will be that of a Swiss watch. When it comes to some very precise research being conducted by Rolf Wuthrich, an associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Aerospace Engineering and Department of Chemical and Material Engineering, the allegory is especially apt.

Wuthrich, who hails from Switzerland, doesn’t build watches, yet, thanks to a generous gift from Swiss company Posalux SA — which produces customized machine solutions for micro-technologies designed for mass production — to the Campaign for Concordia: Next-Gen Now, he is experimenting with a process called Spark Assisted Chemical Engineering.

It’s the science of etching glass on the tiniest of scales and, among other innovations, it could lead to a new generation of custom watch faces that would expand the fine-watch market beyond its current luxury niche. It could also transform the market for customized and personalized faces for smartphones, Wuthrich suggests.

“People want more and more personalized products,” he says — and it’s a rapidly growing global market.

Posalux is a worldwide company based in the small Swiss city of Biel/Bienne, a centre for Swiss industry and precision manufacturing, also known as the Swiss Silicon Valley. Rolex makes some of its parts there and SWATCH Group is also located in the French/German-speaking centre. Posalux specializes in micromachining with a focus on developing products for industry in need of high-tech equipment.

One such piece of equipment, a machine about the size of a large armoire and worth at least $200,000, sits in Wuthrich’s lab at Concordia awaiting an update so that its power supply can be converted from European to North American. It is capable of etching treated glass with tools that range from 30 to 100 micrometres, or microns, in size. (One micrometre is 0.001 mm, or about 0.000039 inches.)

The etching tools are incredibly delicate. “You just have to look at them and they break,” Wuthrich says. So, when they are being moved across the surface of the glass, whether to draw lines or drill tiny holes, it must be done very carefully — and at a very high temperature of 500- to 600-degrees Celsius.

A machine about the size of a large armoire sits in Rolf Wuthrich’s lab at Concordia University The machinery donated by Swiss company Posalux | Photo by Doug Sweet

Creating to ‘develop new business’

Posalux has not only donated the machinery but has also supported several PhD students at Concordia, in addition to providing other support for the research.

“We have worked for a long time with Concordia,” says Marco Nadalin, the company’s head of business development. “With this research we have tried to develop an industrial solution to try to open doors to developing new business.

“It is important for us to maintain links with researchers,” Nadalin says of the nearly 80-year-old company. “We were born in the watch industry, and our first machine was to put radium on the dials of watches.” The company has since branched out into both automotive and electronic businesses.

“We develop a new technology to make the impossible possible,” he says. “We are not followers; we create — often with disruption — where we want to develop new business.”

The gift of machinery and other support from Posalux, “allows us to continue our research,” Wuthrich says, noting that the machine occupying a sizeable footprint in his lab is an industry prototype, not a laboratory prototype. It means the research can be more quickly and easily applied to industrial applications, the crucial technology transfer taught in all engineering schools, including at the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science.

“Our mission,” Wuthrich says, “is to teach the next generation of engineers what industry needs so they can develop applied research for the benefit of society.”


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