The Complete guide of Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) Coating?

Table of Contents

I. Introduction to Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) Coating

The application of coats to protect substrates has been a lifesaver for many industrial processes, especially for protecting products from corrosion and chemical degradation. However, not all coating methods are the same, and all have specific applications across different industries. The physical vapor deposition (PVD) coating is not exempt from this principle, and if you’re in production, you may have certainly encountered this coating method. It uses vaporization to apply a thin film coating on materials often referred to as substrates. While it has its unique properties and characteristics, it is also suitable for specific use cases, which we will explore in this guide, including materials, parameters, and application techniques. Let’s get to it. 

II. PVD Coating Techniques

PVD coating techniques are broadly based on four principles used in their categorization: evaporation, sputtering, laser pulse, and Arc deposition. The specifics of these techniques are what this section aims to highlight. 

Evaporation-based PVD methods: This method involves using vapor to achieve the covering of a substrate with thin films, which shouldn’t be surprising as the V in PVD already stands for vapor. However, what is unique about this coating technique is the vapor-producing process. This PVD method is again categorized into thermal and electron beam evaporation. 

  1. For thermal evaporation, a resistive tungsten filament or filament made from some other metal is used as the heating device to achieve the evaporation of the coating material. The coating material then covers the substrate as it condenses. 
  2. Electron beam evaporation, on the other hand, uses an electron beam as the heating agent for the coating material, causing it to evaporate and give the substrate the required coating as it condenses. This is just like thermal evaporation only difference is the heating agent. However, electron beam evaporation gives a better accurate, smoother, and denser finish as it produces more heat during the evaporation process. 

Sputtering-based PVD methods: This method uses the displacement principle with the coating material as the displaced and plasma as the displacing agent. Once the coating material is displaced, it is then deposited on the substrate. Still, this method is further divided into magnetron and ion beam sputtering.

  1.  During a magnetron sputtering, there is the creation of a magnetic field which causes an unbalanced charge of electrons in materials resulting in the movement of the targeted coating material onto the substrate.
  2. Unlike magnetron sputtering, ion beam sputtering targets the coating material with a high-energy beam to displace it as the ions from the beam hit its target and then deposit on the substrate. 

Pulsed laser deposition (PLD): This technique is like ion beam sputtering. But here, the difference is using a laser pulse with high energy instead of ion beams. No sputtering is involved here as the coating material is deposited nicely and efficiently. The high-energy laser makes it comfortable for PLD to deposit coating materials requiring extreme temperatures. 

Arc deposition: Using electric current to evaporate the coating material underscores this PVD method. In arc deposition, an electric arc vaporizes the coating material from its initial point to deposit it on the substrate through condensation. The dense coating material used to protect the substrate against wearing is often the ideal use case for arc deposition. 

Physical Vapor Deposition

III. PVD Coating Materials

There are several materials that are commonly used with PVD, which we will highlight here. However, PVD is not limited to these materials as its versatility is high compared to other coating methods. Find the popular coating material often used with PVD below. 

  • Metals and metallic alloys

Most metals and alloys are characterized by extreme melting temperatures, usually because they have outstanding mechanical properties, including high strength and hardness, which is why they are used in mold design. However, PVD has been a brilliant coating technique for these materials with impressive results since it is suitable for materials with low thermal conductivity or high melting points. Such metals as chromium, titanium, and aluminum are ideal for PVD. 

  • Nitrides, carbides, and oxides

Many ceramic materials are often classified as nitrides and oxides in manufacturing, considering their favorable mechanical properties, including the anti-wear resistance required for many substrates’ protection. Hence, PVD is critical in coating these substrates with nitrides and carbides, like in aluminum oxide and tungsten carbide. 

  • Diamond-like carbon (DLC)

Being a variation of PVD coating, the DLC coating method is known for its rugged and wear-resistant ability, like that of a diamond as the hardest naturally occurring substance. It also has a unique use case in the automotive industry based on its low friction properties. 

  • Nanocomposite and multilayer coatings

Laying several materials, one on top of the other is often required in complex coating designs to achieve an identified property that can include increased anti-wear properties. These multilayer coatings usually require the use of sophisticated coating equipment with PVD.

  • Factors to consider when choosing PVD materials.

Choosing the right PVD material without considering critical parameters like specific application, required coating thickness, and equipment sophistication may be boxing you into a tight corner. What you intend to achieve with the coating can include increased adhesion, anti-corrosion, or even some optical properties, contributing to determining your chosen coating material. 

IV. Process Parameters and Optimization

Just as in mold manufacturing, there are PVD process parameters you must optimize to achieve the desired coating thickness and finish. 

  • Substrate preparation and cleaning: The quality of the coating relies majorly on the adhesion of the coating to the substrate. Cleaning the substrate surface, ensuring that it is free of any oils, grease, dirt, and oxidation remnants, will help achieve good adhesion to the coating material. 
  • Vacuum levels and gas environment: Vaporization of the coating material often occurs in a vacuum chamber which can be optimized for an excellent coating job by ensuring that the vacuum level is high. 
  • Temperature and pressure control: The vaporization process of the coating material depends on the deposition’s heat and pressure. Hence, ensuring that the temperature is according to specifications will help achieve the desired coating finish and quality, especially with the coating properties required for the substrate. 
  • The deposition rate and film thickness: If you must achieve your desired coating quality, then optimizing the deposition rate to that required for the coating is critical to the success of the coating operation. In other words, a slow deposition rate can mean the growth rate of the film and inadequate film thickness. 
  • Adhesion, morphology, and other properties: Other properties that can affect the coating quality if not optimized include morphology, which has to do with the film’s structure and adhesion. These two characteristics, along with others, can have an impact on both the coating surface finish and the mechanical properties of the film. 
Physical Vapor Deposition

V. PVD Coating Applications

Because of the high temperature created during the PVD coating procedure, it has been discovered to be extremely appropriate for applications involving high-temperature coating materials. Nonetheless, its application has found widespread use in a variety of industries, which we will discuss in this section. 

  1. Aerospace and Automotive Industries: To coat moving parts commonly found in the automotive and aerospace industries, PVD has been used extensively in both sectors to increase the durability of their components PVD coating helps to sustain the performance of items that are frequently subjected to friction, such as engines, turbine blades, and gears. 
  2. Electronics and Semiconductor Industries: During their lifetime, most electronic parts, including semiconductors, are frequently subjected to high temperatures. To increase their lifespan and maintain efficiency, PVD coating helps insulate them from the heat generated during their use, ensuring they don’t break down or fail. 
  3. Medical and Dental Devices: Implants in the medical industry must often be biocompatible with humans. It means they must not react with any internal biological compound or be infected by microorganisms. The use of PVD coatings on implants and other medical devices helps to achieve a high level of biocompatibility, ensuring they do not cause any harm to humans. 
  4. Tools and Cutting Equipment: Using PVD coatings to protect devices and equipment utilized in many facilities ensures their improved effectiveness and durability. Especially for cutting tools and bits used in processes like CNC machining, PVD is a lifesaver seeing that it preserves the cutting effectiveness of the tools for a long time. Also, for high-speed cutting machines that often generate a lot of friction and heat, PVD coating has been used extensively to exempt these tools from damage and failure that this friction may cause. Consequently, the surface finish of the product manufactured by these cutting machines is often high quality. 
  5. Decorative and Wear-resistant Coatings: The aesthetic appeal of many decorative products depends on the quality of the coating used. PVD has increased the quality of luxury devices such as watches and automotive accessories like alloy wheels as it ensures a quality surface finish in distinct colors. It also works well with metallic coatings like gold, chromium, and silver. 
  6. Emerging Applications and Future Trends: While PVD has permeated several industries over the years, there is every indication that it will continue to find new applications even as technology advances at a fast pace. Its use in emerging industries like alternative energy will see its application in producing solar panels and battery cells but more on this later.

VI. Quality Control and Testing of PVD Coatings

Ensuring that a coating procedure meets stipulated standards and specification is a function of thorough quality assessments, inspections, and testing. These quality control measures are also required to ensure that PVD meets coating design requirements. Quality inspection professionals conduct standard tests to ascertain the quality of physical vapor deposition using properties like hardness, adhesion, thermal properties, and wear resistance. Let’s take a careful look at these properties below. 

  1. Surface roughness and morphology: When using the surface roughness and morphology of a coating procedure to ascertain quality, the analysis of the surface aims to verify the smoothness, thickness, structure, and uniformness of the coat. Standard testing methods used in this case include optical profilometry and atomic force microscopy. 
  2. Adhesion and cohesion testing: Testing methods like micro-indentation, scratch, and tape testing help quality inspectors determine the level of adhesion of coating materials to substrates, given how critical bonding is to coating quality. 
  3. Hardness and wear resistance testing:  You need to confirm the hardness and wear resistance of a PVD coating operation as they both indicate its ability to contain the effects of impacts and stress. These are mechanical properties that require tests like micro-scratch testing or nanoindentation. 
  4. Corrosion resistance testing: The ability to resist corrosion is a primary reason for coating substrates, and ensuring a quality PVD coating helps to guarantee effective corrosion resistance. Tests like polarization resistance and salt spray tests help confirm the corrosion resistance level of a PVD coat. 
  5. Optical, electrical, and thermal property measurements: Optical parameters such as reflection and refractive index help quality professionals classify PVD coatings. These parameters require tests like spectrophotometry and ellipsometry for confirmation. Electrical and thermal properties are also included as classification properties using tests like conductivity and resistivity tests to classify the coating operation. 

VII. PVD Coating Equipment and Setup

Understanding the components of a standard PVD equipment setup is critical to achieving a consistent coating that meets the highest quality standard. Let’s examine these equipment components and the paramount consideration required for a proper setup. 

  • The vacuum chamber and pumping system: These components are responsible for ensuring the atmospheric pressure remains optimal for the accurate deposition of the coating material on the substrate. The controller for this system is critical in ensuring that the vacuum remains stable throughout the coating process, which is often dependent on the quality of the pumping system used. 
  • Deposition sources and target material: Magnetron sputtering, and electron beams are examples of sources used in the deposition of coating materials on substrates which are the target materials. These two components require careful selection based on the PVD techniques. 
  • Substrate holders and heating systems: This system is critical in ensuring quality adhesion of the coating materials and the substrate since a defective heating system may not bring the temperature of the substrate to that stipulated in the design. This adequacy may result in a low-quality PVD coating, so you should always ensure that a quality substrate holder and an effective heating system are employed. 
  • Gas handling and mass flow control: These components are also crucial for the quality of the PVD coating operation, considering that mass flow control is essential to optimize the gas flow, consequently ensuring a consistent coating on the substrate. 
  • Monitoring and control systems: Parameters critical to the successful achievement of PVD coating requirements need close monitoring to ensure that they don’t fall below design requirements. Such parameters include deposition rate, temperature, and pressure. Where these parameters may fall below the specified limits, the control system should be adequate to increase or decrease them to the desired value. 

VIII. Challenges and Limitations of PVD Coatings

With the numerous advantages manufacturers often gain from using PVD coating, PVD has some associated limitations and challenges. Here are a few common limitations you may encounter when using PVD coating. 

Coating uniformity and thickness control: For large areas and irregularly shaped substrates where it may be challenging to assess crevices and corners of the substrates, getting a uniform spread on the substrate will also be problematic. Overcoming this challenge may require ingenuity, including closely monitoring the deposition condition and tweaking the control system in real-time during coating operations. 

Deposition of complex shapes and structures: Complicated geometries and shapes pose the challenge of uneven deposition, especially for difficult-to-reach areas. Also, some areas may experience poor adhesion of the coating material. However, coating activities such as rotation, masking, and multiple depositions can help resolve this challenge. 

Large-scale and high-volume production challenges: Carrying out PVD coating in mass production may be physically challenging and costly, considering the human resources and equipment required to achieve this feat. 

Material compatibility and substrate constraints: There are situations where the compatibility of the substrate and the coating material do not align, causing a massive gap in the quality of PVD coating. To avoid coating defects such as delamination, cracks, and poor adhesion, you should critically consider the properties of the coating material and the substrate to ascertain their compatibility. 

Economical and cost considerations: The high price of PVD is another limitation worth considering before employing it. Especially when the coating material involves platinum and other expensive metals. However, it is highly recommended if the cost-to-benefit analysis justifies it. 

Physical Vapor Deposition

IX. Innovations and Future Developments in PVD Coating

Like is obtainable with advanced manufacturing processes like rapid prototyping, PVD coating is not left out of technological advancements as research and development labs worldwide are proffering better and more efficient options for a wide variety of applications. Here are some of the popular innovations and future developments in PVD coating. 

One area where innovation is driving opportunities and providing more applicable options for PVD is advanced techniques and hybrid procedures. These techniques result in better quality, performance, and durability of the coating. These innovative techniques include filtered cathodic arc deposition and ion beam-assisted deposition.

Another innovation area for PVD is nanotechnology, where nanomaterials have been integrated into PVD coating materials to achieve unique properties like self-cleaning and anti-fogging. These are unique applications that will surely be major applications of PVD in the future manufacturing facility.

Again, PVD coating has seen accelerated application in functional coatings that enhance the ability of products to have unique features, including antifouling, anti-bacterial, and self-healing properties. This is why PVD has become increasingly attractive in the medical industry. Also, PVD is used in smart surfaces where they act as sensors to activate specific responses based on their environment, especially for lighting, heat, and atmospheric moisture. 

Future innovations that make a substrate bendable and stretchable are being developed with PVD with the possibility of wearing devices on the body just like clothes. This is an opportunity for medical testing equipment to act like sensors instead of the current intrusive medical equipment. 

The opportunity to create a sustainable and environmentally friendly coating process with PVD, especially using green energy sources like wind and solar, is gradually gaining momentum. 

X. Conclusion

The impact of physical vapor deposition (PVD) on several industries, especially metallurgy, has been equaled by only a few protection techniques. Its versatility and advantages, including improved material protection against corrosion and wear, are just a few of the many merits of PVD. However, it would help if you understood its limitations, as we’ve highlighted in this guide, before selecting it as the coating technique for your project, especially the cost implication. Nevertheless, its merits far outweigh its limitations, especially when the budget is not a critical consideration for you. Still, you need to optimize all its process parameters, including checking for compatibility of the substrate and the coating material to ensure PVD coating meets the specified quality and finish. 


Gary Liao

Gary Liao

Gary Liao is the Engineering Manager of TDL Company and has more than 20 years of mold design experience.

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