Hot company in the cooling business

November 16, 1998

5 Min Read
Hot company in the cooling business

Heat dissipation. A problem everyone has but no one wants to admit. Ken St. Jacques and an associate, however, charmed companies into confessing their heat problems. Then the pair made it their business to solve them.

Every week for several months, the pair visited Digital Equipment Corp. (Laconia, NH), where engineers presented them with a different thermal problem. The two worked each weekend in St. Jacques' garage and came back each Monday with a specially designed heat sink.

And so, Aavid Thermal Technologies Inc. was born--a thermal-management company headquartered in Concord, NH. Because of its cooling solutions, Aavid is one hot company. In the last six years its Aavid Thermal Products arm saw an increase in revenue from $38 million in 1992 to $135 million in 1997. It jumped from the number three heat sink supplier in the U.S. to number one. Now it intends to tackle the international market.

Internal heat is the only thing that can stop the advance of faster, smaller electronic technology, says Ron Borelli, Aavid CEO. With more detailed graphics, multimedia, the Internet--what used to demand 5W now demands 40W.

While demands heat up, real estate in electronic devices shrinks, offering less space for parts, airflow, or cooling devices. Heat generated has nowhere to go.

That's where Aavid comes in. Under the umbrella of Aavid Thermal Technologies, three subsidiaries--Aavid Thermal Products, Fluent Technologies, and Applied Thermal Technologies--develop products to cool electrical equipment.

Aavid Thermal Products manufactures heat sinks. As time-to-market is the key to its customers' success, Aavid has stepped up its turn-around time. "We can design a heat sink in anywhere from 10 minutes to 10 days," says Chris Soule, industry manager. Part of the reason for the company's quick response time is Applied Thermal Technologies, located in Santa Clara, CA. Applied is Aavid's service arm. General Manager Dr. Vivek Mansingh and his engineers offer complete system, board, and component-level thermal expertise, cooling design and analysis, and numerical modeling, as well as measurement and testing.

Fluent Technologies, acquired by Aavid in 1995, develops computational fluid dynamics software (CFD).

But Aavid's bread and butter is still the heat sink--a device that removes heat from semiconductors by providing a cooler temperature for the heat to flow toward.

Anytime someone turns power on or off, a net loss results, says Soule. This inefficiency comes out in the form of heat that must be controlled. For silicon chips, for instance, if the temperature goes above 125C, the die life can be shortened by half. If the temperature rises above 175C, the die will eventually explode. Typically, semiconductor life is anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 hours. A heat sink regulates temperature by adding surface area.

A precise science. Aavid engineers add a layer of heat-conducting aluminum to the base of chips. Heat travels from the semiconductor through the metal layer down needle-like pins, or fins. Sometimes a fan forces the air through the computer or controller box, removing heat from the heat sink. Although the concept sounds simple, it requires precise engineering.

This includes design considerations such as:

Power input

  • Maximum allowable temperature

  • Weight of part

  • Number of devices to be cooled

  • Ambient temperature

  • Elevation

  • Manufacturability

  • Cost.

Aavid must design electrical-power heat sinks that withstand salt, fog, rain, snow, birds, bugs, even a gun shot. "We manufactured a heat exchanger that would survive a 12-gauge buckshot," Chris Soule says. "We never can tell what will happen in rural areas.

"We're 'rockin-and-rollin' here," Soule continues. Everyone does whatever it takes to get the job done."

When Judie Hart, marketing communications manager, first started, the company needed to meet its projected end-of-quarter heat sink quota. She remembers someone from the factory floor came to administration and said, "Hey, this is our last chance to get this stuff out the door to make our quota." One third of her department rolled up their sleeves, went downstairs, and started packing boxes.

By any other name. Aavid got its name because of a printing error. The founders originally named the company Arvid Engineering, using a family name. The materials came back from the printer with an "a" instead of "r". Since there was no time to reprint before the scheduled market release, Aavid stuck.

Entrepreneur Alan Beane bought the company in a leveraged buyout in 1985 and started expanding both locally and nationally. After the company went public in 1996, the international expansion began. Today there are offices all over the world.

The company also expanded its thermal management approach. "We used to be strictly a job shop solving part problems," says George Danneker, CEO of Aavid Thermal Products. Now, Aavid looks at overall system solutions.

"I think the company's totally integrated approach sets it apart from the competition," says Krishna Shanker, VP, senior semiconductor analyst at Donaldson, Lufkin, and Jenrette. "Aavid is a new kind of company with its system solution approach." The competition is more problem oriented, he says.

"We're a $100 million company today. We expect to be a $1 billion company within the decade," says Danneker.

3 ways to beat the heat

A heat sink serves three basic functions: It absorbs the heat from a semiconductor; transfers the heat through the material in the heat sink; and dissipates the heat from the finned surfaces.

The sink removes the heat via convection, conduction, or radiation.

Convection cooling removes heat from an object by intimate contact between air molecules and its surface. If a fan is used to hasten the procedure, the process is called forced convection. If not, it is natural convection.

In conduction, heat travels from inside the die through the base down the heat sink fins.

Radiation transfers heat through the infrared electromagnetic spectrum, based on emmissivity. Emmissivity includes properties of material such as color and reflectivity.

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