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Shapal M Soft – A Generation of Innovation

In our latest online blog, Precision Ceramics Business Director, Geoff Randle, recalls the early days of his career with the company and the two principal materials he worked with.

I read an article on the time span that defines a generation, typically between 22 and 33 years, and thought about what was occurring in my life during the same period.

I joined Precision Ceramics – or McGeoch as it was then – in February 1992 nearly 29 years ago. The small machining cell that existed at that time was made up of 4 machinists, a foreman and myself and we machined two principal materials, Corning’s Macor, a long established machinable glass ceramic, and Shapal M, a relatively new machinable aluminium nitride. This material had only been around for a few years and was just starting to generate interest. It’s difficult to think of this being a generation ago, but Shapal M has a 30-year history and although well-established nowadays, I can remember trying to explain this novel material to customers and discuss its benefits. When you have a data sheet showing its extraordinary properties but no track record or any companies willing to collaborate their findings because it was so new and innovative, that was no easy task!

When a product combines something as unusual as a Hipped ceramic, giving it the most consistent properties that require no special tooling to machine, it was attention grabbing. Shapal M could function in extreme conditions – 1,900°C in inert atmospheres – it was good at thermal shock, did not outgas in vacuum and was an excellent electrical insulator. It also had the same expansion rate as silicon so the use of Shapal M was only being used in the most technically demanding and extreme environments and people were certainly reluctant to trailblaze using it in more prestige applications

It was only with trepidation  that you would trust your semiconductor manufacturing to have Shapal M in the heart of your process without long exhaustive testing or use it in your satellite system that cost £50m. As a result Shapal M evolved slowly, tested and re-tested, every project starting with scepticism that this machinable aluminium nitride could match the claims made about it. Initially small quantities of Shapal M were used in the most advanced projects. The material was special, processed to be consistent and all of the manufacturing from Hipping through production required the best processes which meant that Shapal M was considered expensive. This could only be countered by showing the performance and lifetime of the material. When performance and lifetime can only be shown when the material is in and running in an application, someone has to show an initial leap of faith.

A generation later when I can look at drawings specifying Shapal M in some of the most well-known and recognisable brand names on the planet and know that it is used in some of the most famous ground breaking scientific experiments, time does indeed seem to have flown

The world is a slightly different place now and people appear more accepting of technology advances, but the proof of the pudding will be the launch of another advanced innovative material, one of a range of our new materials but the properties of CeramaZirc Ultra Tough with its massively enhanced fracture toughness will again start people on the track of trialing it. The only difference this time is CeramaZirc Ultra Tough, by a quirk of its manufacture, is bright orange!

Look up the material and the video on our website if you don’t believe me! Only time will tell if this novel colour will enhance or deter people from using it.

A range of Shapal Hi-M Soft Machinable Aluminium Nitride components manufactured by Precision Ceramics.

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