Stories – 75 years in business

75 years in business – How Comet is exploring for better

From the Iron Curtain to Silicon Valley.

When the Iron Curtain falls in 1989, Vakuum-Kondensatoren AG in Bern-Liebefeld, the precursor of the Plasma Control Technologies division, loses its main customer segment and must reinvent itself. The pivotal realignment takes the company to the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

The vast Wertachtal shortwave radio transmitter center near Munich is used by foreign radio stations during the Cold War – many of them Comet’s customers. (Image: Wikimedia Commons, User: Zonk43).

From a distance, the Wertachtal shortwave transmitter facility looks like a space station on a faraway planet. Especially at night, when giant floodlights illuminate the steel lattice towers, up to 127 meters high, that support the cable nets for the antennas. A sight reminiscent of a Star Wars movie.

Radio with a political mission

It is 1989 and the world is still in the Cold War, in which the Wertachtal shortwave transmitter plays an important role on the ideological front. Its 25 antennas are powerful enough to reach the whole world, and especially the countries of the Eastern Bloc. Western broadcasters, such as Deutsche Welle and the American stations Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, take advantage of this, pitching their messages of freedom and prosperity from Wertachtal to the region behind the Iron Curtain. And right at the heart of it all in the Wertachtal facility are components from Comet, whose subsidiary, Vakuum-Kondensatoren AG (VC), supplies radio stations all over the world with high-performance capacitors and specialty parts. The Wertachtal transmitter center is one of its most important customers.

World market leader in large capacitors

In 1965, Comet founds the capacitor maker Vakuum-Kondensatoren AG (VC) to balance out the fluctuating sales in the x-ray sector. In time, the subsidiary will grow into the world market leader in the manufacture of large capacitors. By the end of the 1980s, VC is manufacturing and selling capacitors with power ratings of several hundred kilowatts to customers such as ABB (Switzerland), AEG (Germany), Marconi (England) and Continental Electronics (USA). Business is so good that VC outgrows its premises. In 1989 it moves to a larger site and by the end of the year will have achieved record sales of over six million Swiss francs. But by then, the world is already a different place.

Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989 (Image: Wikimedia Commons, User: Superikonsoskop)
The fall of the Berlin Wall is a turning point for Comet, too

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall opens and thus becomes irrelevant overnight, paving the way for the end of the Cold War. As a result, the shortwave transmitter in the Wertach Valley loses its political significance. Nearly all stations that have been broadcasting from it scale back or cease operations altogether over the next few years, until the facility is finally demolished in 2014. For Comet’s subsidiary VC, the new geopolitical situation means a severe slump in business; the boom of the 1980s is followed by difficult times, requiring measures such as short-time working. VC is only able to stay afloat thanks to its – low-margin – industrial business. If the company is to make money with vacuum capacitors in the future, it urgently needs to develop new markets. A strategic pivot is in order. The new big target market is the USA.

Second attempt at the US market

In the past, Comet has not been able to gain a real foothold in the USA. “The American market was very price-driven even back then,” recalls electrical engineer Walter Bigler, “so we couldn’t compete in the volume business with our more expensive top-end products.” VC’s capacitors often cost twice as much as those of its US competitors. The fact that they are also up to five times more durable appears to be secondary – for the time being.

About Walter Bigler

For Walter Bigler, a young electrical engineer, the turbulent period in geopolitics at the end of the 1980s is also one of great personal change. After ten years at Vakuum-Kondensatoren AG (VC), a division of the subsidiary Comet Technik AG, he is actually intending to move on. But an offer from management to make him VC’s head of engineering is too good to turn down. Bigler will remain with the company for more than 40 years. He retires in 2021, but keeps in touch with Comet as a member of its 10-year seniority club.

Now, a new opportunity presents itself. As luck would have it, Machlett Laboratories is sold to Varian in the very year that the Berlin Wall comes down. Since 1954, Comet has been producing x-ray tubes under license from Machlett. Now the license agreement expires and Comet is allowed to establish its own subsidiary in the USA, which opens in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1989. In the future, not only will the US x-ray tube business be looked after from here, but a second push to market vacuum capacitors will be made from the base in Norwalk. The recipe for success on which Comet’s hopes ride is customer proximity.

Onward to Silicon Valley

In 1991, Comet is approached by a company from Silicon Valley. This firm specializes in plant engineering and dry etching for the semiconductor industry, whose microchips form the heart of every computer. In the past, the company, which today is one of the world’s leading equipment suppliers to the semiconductor industry, repeatedly experienced failures of its equipment at end customers. The reason almost always lay in defective vacuum capacitors – the partly etched wafers would then be worthless, causing significant financial loss. That is why the Silicon Valley company is searching for high-quality, absolutely reliable capacitors – which it finds at Comet.

In 1992, after a test phase of several months, the time has come. The two companies enter into “demanding but fair negotiations,” as Walter Bigler recollects. “They wanted to know how fast we can grow, how flexible we are, how we are in terms of service, delivery times, delivery readiness level, and consulting.” In short, the customer wants Comet to be a true partner that can do more than “just” build the best capacitors in the world. In return, it fully relies on Comet’s high quality: For example, from now on, this customer will require anyone who wants to supply it with impedance matching networks (also known as matches) to buy the vacuum capacitors for these from Comet.

The move into the semiconductor equipment market

The Silicon Valley customer spurs Comet into entering a new era. The semiconductor industry demands a dynamism and flexibility of VC that was previously almost unheard of in Bern-Liebefeld. Within little time, it must metamorphose into a cutting-edge technology firm. It has the right technology, quality and products – but developing the necessary new mindset takes some adjustment. “Above all, we had to work on agility and speed in handling customer requests,” says Walter Bigler. And then there is the language: The new key account has so profound an impact on the Swiss company that English becomes the second official language at VC.

In 2000, Vakuum-Kondensatoren AG, with 120 employees, has sales of about 30 million Swiss francs – and is already planning its next strategic advance: a forward integration, by manufacturing the matches itself for which it has so far supplied the capacitors. Thanks to its entry into the semiconductor market, VC has evolved into today’s Plasma Control Technologies division, whose radio frequency technology enables the production of components like microchips and touchscreens – a high-value business.

In every respect, it’s a good thing the Berlin Wall fell.