Gino Palumbo didn't set out to make super-light, super-strong golf shafts.
His company, Integran Technologies Inc., was formed initially to develop innovative nano-engineered metals for use in industries such as aerospace and defence.
But developing new technologies for those industries is a lengthy process, and Integran wanted to see big revenue streams flowing in years, rather than decades.
So in 2004, Mr. Palumbo took a chance: Integran branched out into the lucrative sports equipment industry, where cutting-edge technology, lightness and strength command a premium price.
Integran started with golf club shafts, made by fusing a nickel alloy coating to a graphite core using nanotechnology.
So far, about 75,000 True Temper Epic shafts have been sold, and Integran is expanding to other sporting goods, such as tennis racquets and baseball bats.
But the move into the sports world also had an unexpected bonus for the Toronto company: a boost in contracts across the board, including Integran's aerospace and defence work. Once potential customers got a look at the Epic shaft, Mr. Palumbo says, they understand how nanotechnology can work with their own products.
"People hold it and they feel how light it is and how strong it is and suddenly a light bulb starts going on in their head ... about all the other applications where they could use it," he says.
Mr. Palumbo joined us on Thursday to talk about his experiences in launching a new product, as well as the potential for nanotechnologies.
Dianne Nice: Gino, thank you for joining us today to discuss your company, Integran Technologies. Can you start by telling us a bit about your background and how you got your start in nanotechnology?
Gino Palumbo: It's a pleasure for me to be participating.
I am a materials scientist by training. My start in nanotechnology came while doing my doctoral studies in metallurgical engineering at the University of Toronto in the early '80s. I had the pleasure of working with eminent scientists Professors Uwe Erb and Karl T. Aust. Together we began looking at ways of improving the performance of materials by manipulating their internal structure. Several years after completion of my doctorate, I had the opportunity to apply this fundamental technology to nuclear plant problems at Ontario Hydro. This led to the development of what is likely the first large-scale industrial application for nanotechnology - the Electrosleeve process for nuclear tubing repair. On the basis of this technology and others that had been developed through collaboration between Ontario Hydro, the University of Toronto and Queen's University, Integran was launched as an independent company in 1999.
Dianne Nice: The Epic golf club shaft has been a "breakthrough" for your company. Have you had any other breakthroughs that might be of interest to our readers? The article mentions your activity in aerospace and defence.
Gino Palumbo: For a company of only 55 employees, we have a huge amount of technology development activity that is presently ongoing. These new concepts, which are in varying stages of commercial maturity, range from industrial process piping repair to new materials for microelectronics manufacturing to advanced high-temperature gas turbine engine superalloys. One of the areas that we're most excited about is our environmentally friendly alternatives to chromium and cadmium, which are still widely used, especially in aerospace. Over the past seven years, we've been busy developing environmentally benign alternatives to these processes and we're excited about the fact that they are beginning to receive broad industry acceptance. Removing these harmful metals will be good for the environment and so that certainly represents a breakthrough of sorts for Integran.
Dianne Nice: What about our troubled automotive sector? Could your new materials be used there?
Gino Palumbo: Yes. In fact, we have already launched a joint venture with Algonquin Automotive and Dupont, one of the world's largest chemical suppliers. This new company, called Morph Technologies, is focused upon the development and commercialization of lighter-weight materials, and we are targeting the automotive sector in particular. In a nutshell, what the engineers at Morph are doing is addressing the many shortfalls of plastics by marrying them with Integran's high-strength metal. Take a look under the hood of a car, for instance. It would be great if more of these components could be made from lightweight plastics, but that simply isn't possible because plastics have poor high-temperature stability. Morph's technology equips plastics with metallic properties (such as high-temperature resistance) and this will eventually allow the automotive parts designer to create lighter and lighter weight components, ultimately resulting in drastic improvements in fuel efficiency and less harmful emissions into the environment.
Dianne Nice: Who do you work with to generate new product ideas? Do you generate all technical and product ideas in house or do you collaborate with others?
Gino Palumbo: We work very closely with the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Toronto on basic research, and we also work closely, usually through partnerships, with industrial leaders in different fields in order to gain market expertise and access.
Michael Craine from Calgary writes: Lighter, stronger, origination at the atomic level should result in extraordinary degrees of manufactured precision. How about weapon systems both handheld and larger? Or surgical instruments, ice skates, tools (for example: wrenches, screwdrivers, power tools, automotive parts)? The list could be endless! Do the processes apply to other fabrications, for example: plastics, other metal compounds, clothing fabrics, household fabrics, pipelines, ship-building?
Gino Palumbo: Michael, you are absolutely correct - the list is endless. However, we have focused upon areas where customers are willing to pay a premium for performance.
Our materials are particularly well-suited for many defence applications for which we have established a vertical business in Pittsburgh, Pa., called Integran Defense Systems. Applications currently being looked at include personnel and vehicle armour, lightweight gun barrels, self-lubricating weapons mechanisms, anti-tank weapons, etc.
We have also focused on the automotive parts sector through our vertical business Morph Technologies. Here we are focusing on lightweight automotive parts for improving fuel efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Regarding surgical instruments, we are currently looking at launching another vertical business in the biomedical area. In addition to material strength and hardness, our materials also exhibit anti-bacterial properties which are of high interest in the healthcare and food processing industries.
Our materials can be applied to virtually any substrate (metal, plastic, ceramic, etc.) leading to unique hybrid structures.
W M from Vancouver writes: I understand there has been some research done in the use of carbon nanofibres in the production of power transmission cables. With the current emphasis on infrastructure renewal and the siting issues regarding new transmission, there is interest in making the existing infrastructure more efficient. Have you considered applying the technology to power transmission lines to reduce line loss?
Gino Palumbo: Application of Integran's technology to enable efficiency improvements in power transmission is definitely something that we are considering. In fact, we have already been running an advanced electrical wire development program that is somewhat related. The concept is geared towards drastically increasing the strength-to-weight ratio of aircraft electrical wire without significantly compromising electrical conductivity, the ultimate objective being to remove weight from aircraft. We are presently exploring ways to extend the learnings to power transmission.
Tim Shark from Kent, U.S.A., writes: Mr. Palumbo, congratulations on your success. Wishing you continued success for the future. Your metal coating creates possible interest for our products - decorative laminates for aircraft interiors. Is your coating mixture capable of being processed by outside coating capabilities in the .25 mils or up to 2.25 mils thick? Or how can your coating be provided - in a film near the above 2 thickness ranges? Many thanks! Tim Shark, Schneller, LLC
Gino Palumbo: Hi, Tim. We have traditionally stayed away from decorative applications as the unique performance properties of our materials do not provide us with any competitive advantage. In aerospace, there are a number of both interior and exterior applications where we provide durability and strength enhancements to parts. On the interior, we have looked at enhancing the durability of thermoplastic ducting, while on the outside of the aircraft, we are using the hardness and strength of our material to protect relatively soft carbon composite parts from rain and sand erosion.
Danny Maue from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., writes: Good afternoon Mr. Palumbo. Being exposed to the golf business my entire life - my father has been a CPGA professional for almost 50 years, and I personally have been a CPGA professional for over 25 years - my question is, do you have any noticeable PGA Tour players using your product? I have found through the years that if and when someone in the limelight would ever breakthrough and 'win' a significant event using a lesser known product, all hell breaks lose and you as an inventor are off to the races!!! An example of this was in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus won the Masters using that big-headed putter. The next day, MacGregor took orders for more than 5,000 putters!!! Thanks for your time, Danny Maue
NB: I would love to try your product!!!
Gino Palumbo: Thanks for your question, Mr. Maue! One of the first well-known players to use our shaft in competition was Rich Beem. However, the real breakthrough came in last year's Masters when Trevor Immelman used Epic for the big win. His outstanding percentages for fairways hit substantiated what our engineers have been seeing from the very beginning, namely that the unique dynamic flexural and torsional characteristics of the shaft effectively increase shot-making accuracy. We're glad to hear you're excited to try Epic, let us know how it works out!
David Tron from Toronto writes: With a product that seems to sell itself, where do you begin to put a price tag on it?
Gino Palumbo: Thanks for the question, David. First off, we try to target markets that place a high value on performance per unit weight of material. These markets tend to be industries like aerospace, defence and biomedical, to name a few. We then aim to "value price" our products, which is to say, that we charge what the market can bear, given the competition, alternative solutions, volumes and other factors. We are also quite selective from a business development standpoint to choose programs that are a good fit from a value proposition, volume and pricing perspective.
Ariel Castromayor from Toronto writes: Congratulations, Gino, on the success! Has anyone approached Integran with other opportunities in the sports or competition arena? Rotating and friction parts treated at the nano level could potentially reduce drag infinitesimally. Skate blades, bobsleigh/luge/skeleton runners, skis, engine pistons, cylinder walls, ball bearings, etc.
Gino Palumbo: Ariel, good question. We're trying to focus on applications where our ability to manipulate matter on a nanoscale results in performance enhancements, be it in the sports arena or otherwise. One interesting property that is intrinsic to ultrafine-grained materials is the coefficient of friction, which is lower for nanocrystalline materials as compared to conventional engineering metals such as steel. We're exploring applications (e.g. ice skate/bobsleigh blades, replacement coatings for hard chrome, misc. wear surfaces) where low-friction surfaces result in less drag and therefore improve performance. Another neat property that is dependent upon the nano-sized topography of a surface is hydrophobicity i.e. the ability of a surface to resist wetting of a water droplet, for instance. By optimizing the surface structure on a nanoscale, we can create superhydrophobic self-cleaning surfaces that could have a variety of end applications.
Ariel Castromayor: Have there been any discussions on applying the technology for use in the semiconductor/microchip industry? PVD processes have helped the circuit board get smaller (0.5 micron thickness vs. 10 micron for standard electroplating).
Gino Palumbo: Thanks again for your support Ariel! We have found a few good applications for the microelectronics industry which play off of the small grain size of the material, as well as the commensurate increase in hardness and strength. Although I can't go into details, we have a number of solutions that can assist in the circuit board manufacturing process as feature sizes shrink. The creation of small circuit line widths requires high-precision manufacturing and that's one area where we can help. Another exciting application area is electronic device casings, which we all know are getting smaller and lighter. This requires technologies to produce high strength-to-weight materials along with methods to boost the mechanical performance of lightweight plastics, which is Integran's forte.
Pascal Fortier from Toronto writes: Hi Gino. Congratulations on your success. There is a lot of effort in the automotive industry to produce cars that are more efficient, i.e. electric and fuel-cell cars. Would your products be applicable to increase battery life and safely store hydrogen to run cars of the future? I wish you the best. Cheers.
Gino Palumbo: Pascal, thank you for the kind words. Regarding hydrogen storage, we are looking at safe lightweight impermeable storage containers and we are also exploring the use of our materials as hydrogen permeation membranes for fuel reformers. For electric vehicles, we have an active program for applying our materials for electromagnetic shielding, and also for high-efficiency cores for induction motors.
Dianne Nice: Gino, I want to thank you again for joining us today. The technology your company has been working on is fascinating and I wish we had more time for questions.
Gino Palumbo:Thank you for the opportunity to participate, and I would also like to thank all of the readers for the very high-quality questions that they have provided. I would also like to thank Frank Armstrong for preparing an excellent article and The Globe and Mail for the Breakthrough series, which puts a spotlight on innovative Canadian companies which, through technology innovation, create the high-tech employment opportunities of the future.