Manufacturer of Ceramic Components Offers Powder-to-Part Capabilities
Demand at Progressive Technology Inc. suggests that the durability, strength, and aesthetic lure of ceramic is making it an appealing choice in the medical and orthodontic industries. And Progressive has mastered the "art" of producing ceramic parts, especially when it comes to machining and grinding it to tight tolerances, something many other ceramic manufacturers can't do.
"What's unique about Progressive Technology compared to some other ceramic companies is we go all the way from powder to finished part. We press it and we machine it in what's called a green state," said company vice president Carol Rogers, explaining that the green state refers to the material before it's fired. "That's what makes us unique. There are many ceramic companies out there that are just grinding ceramic; they can't do it from powder all the way through. It takes a special skill set, a very experienced group of people to be able to make a part from something that is going to shrink 20 percent before you get it to the final process. You can imagine, when you're holding really tight tolerances and calculating 20 percent shrink factor, how much engineering and machining know-how it takes to make that happen."
The high purity of alumina oxide (a ceramic) is extremely critical in the production of valves and rotors, as well as stators and syringes that may contact a broad range of fluids. The non-porous qualities of ceramic make it optimal for handling liquids.
Using ceramic in the medical industry, such as with blood valves, is beneficial in that ceramic doesn't corrode the way metals do and has a longer life than plastics, said production supervisor for Progressive, Martin Schwab. He explained that ceramic is fast becoming a preferred material in the medical industry. Although it's a bit more expensive than other materials, its longer life cycle and non-porous surface make it more desired. It can be cleaned with acids or taken to high temperatures without damaging the part, Schwab said.
In addition to ceramic, Progressive works in many exotic materials, such as spinel, sapphire, and silicon carbide. "These are very hard materials and it takes a lot of experience to work with them. It's not the same every time you approach it. It's more of an art rather than a science," Rogers said.
One of the company's greatest achievements is manufacturing orthodontic brackets. These brackets are increasingly popular as an aesthetically-pleasing alternative to metal brackets. According to Rogers, it takes an experienced staff to complete the complex operations required to produce parts within tolerance.
The ceramic process at Progressive starts as powder, and it is formed into a billet through iso-static pressing. The press is not typical because instead of pressing mechanically, it uses water inside a chamber. The ceramic material is then pressed to 20,000 lbs. in all directions to form a block or bar of material. The block is held together by waxes used in the mixing stage. A piece is cut from the end to act as the coupon, which is tested to find out how much shrinkage (up to 20 percent) will occur on the individual block.
The mastering of this part of the process, the pre-firing part, is what sets Progressive apart. "We have ceramic grinding companies that come to us to do this part of the process. They have us press it and do the pre-firing machining for them and then they finish the part. We have three or four companies we do that for because they don't have the know-how," Rogers said. She explained that one machinist on the floor has 40 years of experience; the owner, Shannon Rogers, has 30 years of experience; and Schwab has 25 years of experience. This expertise in working in the green state of the process is something they jokingly call "white magic," she said.
Shannon Rogers founded the company in 1988 and holds several patents in orthodontic bracket technology. Although most of the company's business centers around the medical, dental, and analytical equipment industries, Progressive also caters to electronics, aerospace, and laser.
The ability to work in both green and post-fire allows Progressive to make a part for less than a company that lacks the capability. Working with ceramic in the green state doesn't take quite as long or eat up as much tooling as it does in the post-fired state, Rogers explained.
"A half inch hole in green (state) will take me half a minute; a half-inch hole in the hard state will take me half an hour," Schwab said, adding that the time savings is passed on to customers in cost savings.
The Rocklin, Calif., company completes much specialized, unique work, especially with prototypes, and manufactures anywhere from one part to 20,000 per week for a customer. Rogers said that with the growing interest in ceramics from the medical and dental industries, Progressive has big plans to double its size in three years. Currently, Progressive has 38 employees, a 17,000 sq. ft. facility, and posts about $5 million a year in revenue. The company has room to expand, and a new 12,000 sq. ft. addition will be built next to the current facility by the beginning of the new year. Progressive is also adding a new CNC machine and computerizing the inspection process, Schwab said.
"More and more OEMs and medical device manufacturers--not just the medical industry--are realizing the advantages of ceramics due to the life of the part. They're realizing that ceramic is the way to go and there's a lot of growth in the industry," Rogers said.
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