By Tom Henderson
Small Times Senior Writer

For more than a decade, eye-catching photos of ugly bugs looming over various pieces of microtechnology have caught the attention of everyone from kids to admirals to magazine editors.

The dust mites, spider mites and garden ants have become icons and mascots for the small tech industry.

A recent Forbes ASAP cover story on microtechnology was illustrated with a photo of a tiny


Sandia: Spider mite on a microlock
gear on the forehead of a fearsome-looking ant. At the recent Hannover Trade Fair in Germany, giant enlarged photos of ants with microgears balancing on their knees were scattered throughout the exhibition hall.

But while the bugs have brought attention and headlines, they also have created controversy. Critics say the small-tech industry has matured to the point where it no longer needs gimmicks; that such efforts at “cute” are demeaning.

Attention, they say, should come now because of product development, business deals and technological breakthroughs; not because you can go to a Web site for a national laboratory and see films or photos of critters spinning on gears.

The folks at Sandia National Laboratories disagree.

Sandia, a national research center involved in a wide variety of high-tech Department of Defense projects, uses blown-up photos of tiny dust mites towering over a micromachine to give a sense of scale and to help young people develop an interest in science, Sandia scientists say.


Aphids and their ilk ought to be shooed away from illustrations of MEMS devices — and the sooner the better, says Karen Markus, vice president of technology strategy at JDS Uniphase and chief technology officer at Cronos Integrated Microsystems in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

“The use of bugs on MEMS trivializes what we are trying to accomplish commercially and leaves a bad taste in the minds of those whose first impressions are formed by these images,” says Markus.

“The original `ant with a gear’ picture that was used by the Germans back in the very early ’90s served a purpose — to exhibit the scale and form of a new technology. Now, however, we are trying to present the industry as one that is past lab antics and ready for the trials and tribulations of the commercial market, and the image of dust mites hitching a ride on gears is inconsistent with this goal.

“In the past several years, I have been told by a number of senior executives at major corporations who were trying to learn about MEMS and whether they were appropriate for their companies’ products that images such as this had caused them to dismiss the technology at first.”


The bug as icon traces its history back to 1990 and the garden of Peter Bley, then a manager at the Karlsruhe Research Center, the German counterpart to Sandia. Bley, now the executive manager for Karlsruhe’s microsystems technologies program, was an early researcher in the field.

One day it hit him that he needed something graphic to create excitement and show scale. He decided he needed an ant, a difficult objective in Germany in the autumn. “In October, you do not find ants in our climate.”

Bley left out honey as bait overnight. By the next morning, despite the season, one ant had been lured and was stuck in place.

Bley killed the ant in liquid nitrogen, “so it kept its form,” then tried, without success, to balance a microgear on the ant’s knee under a microscope. Finally, a student with a steadier hand got the gear in place and the photo was taken.

The result was a wonderful bit of marketing.

The perspective was such that the ant, staring dead at the camera, had a ferocious look reminiscent of 1950s science-fiction movies. Once you got past the scary visage, you noticed the tiny gear balancing improbably on one of its legs.

The photo ran in newspapers and publications throughout Europe, and has become an icon of the German microsystem industry. At the Hannover Fair, blown-up images of this bug were scattered throughout Hall 7, where the microsystems exhibits were housed. A particularly large picture was used to decorate the stage for the daily presentations and round-table discussions in the center of the hall.

But Bley’s bug has its detractors, too.

“No more ants,” says Erik Puik of TNO Industrial Technology, a research institute in the Netherlands. “It’s the wrong image, and it costs us delay.”


The idea of putting living insects on micromachines at Sandia was hatched in 1994, when researcher Paul McWhorter attended a MEMS conference.

One naysayer stood up and said: “You know what MEMS stands for? MEms Moves Squat.” He said the potential of MEMS was being overblown because the technology would never produce meaningful force or movement.

“I took that as a challenge,” says McWhorter. His plan? To demonstrate force and movement in a visually arresting way.

Early MEMS researchers had used dead dust mites with a gold coating, taking photos of them with a scanning electron microscope to demonstrate scale. McWhorter wanted to do them one further. “I thought getting a live one to ride a gear around would be a challenge,” he said.

In 1995, he got some spider mites from an entomologist, then nurtured their development on a miniature rose bush in a test lab at Sandia. When he figured they had reached critical mass, McWhorter picked up the bush and shook it furiously over a MEMS wafer and then began taking pictures.

“We had to chase them around with a probe tip awhile before we got a live one riding a gear around,” he says. A MEMS gear was moving, and it was carrying a live load to boot. The rest is history.

“The photos generated a real sense of ‘wow!’ in the public,” says McWhorter, who started Sandia’s MEMS department in 1992. He took leave from the lab last year to help start MEMX, a Sandia spin-off specializing in high-performance optical switching for the telecommunications industry.


Photos of the spider mite started showing up in newspapers and popular science magazines. And reaction, pro and con, rained on McWhorter.

“In the MEMS community, Sandia and I came under a great deal of criticism,” says McWhorter. “People said we were trivializing MEMS, that we were setting the field back. There was this stodgy reaction. I personally felt under attack.”

But letters of support poured in from around the country, he says. And later, e-mails.

“I’ve gotten hundreds of e-mails from kids who have seen the bugs saying, `How can I become an engineer? I want to be a scientist when I grow up.’ When we were kids, we had the space program to get us excited. These kids had our spider mites. So, to those stodgy people who still criticize me, I say `Tough!’ “

“We need something to show some sense of scale,” explains Dr. W. David Williams, director of the Microsystems Science, Technology and Components Center at Sandia. A spider mite can be about 300 microns across, or the width of three average human hairs, McWhorter says.

The spider mite and its newer companions, dust mites and aphids, remain on the Image Gallery and Movie Gallery at the Sandia Web site. Downloadable movies show spider mites spinning furiously in circles on wheels, or walking across a miniature suspension spring. One still photo shows the leg of a dust mite monstrously dwarfing a gear on a mirror drive assembly.

“Dust mites are a perfect example of a microsystem,” says Williams. MEMS devices sense, actuate and communicate — and, says Williams, so do dust mites.

“I’ve been challenged on the communication part, but I figure if anything that ugly can procreate, it must be doing okay at communicating.”

The images particularly help with young students, he says.

“Kids come to the national labs, they expect a stuffy place,” Williams says. “Suddenly they see pictures of the bug all around. It loosens them up. They like it. You see the same reaction whether it’s kids or admirals. It’s very powerful.”

Sandia isn’t the only MEMS place you’ll find bugs as mascots or logos. MEMGen, a Los Angeles’ based MEMS’ fabrication facility specializing in non-traditional processes and materials, uses a blown-up image of a three-millimeter-long household ant as its Web site icon.

“It was my wife’s idea,” says MEMGen CEO Adam Cohen. “It was designed to be dramatic, to provide scale [and] it may be used in printed material.”


At the COMS2000 conference in Santa Fe, N.M., last fall, Williams found the bugs still had detractors. Robert Bratter, then the president of Cronos, got up and told a gathering that the industry needed, in effect, a big dose of Raid.

If MEMS at one time might have needed a frivolous icon to attract attention, it certainly didn’t by late 2000, Bratter said. Even mainstream publications were writing about the industry, the science behind it, and the economic giant it seemed on the verge of becoming.

It was time to move on, Bratter said.

“His was the outlying comment,” Williams says. “I must tell you, the community’s response was terrific. They were coming up to me and saying `Don’t pay any attention to him. We love the bug.'”

“There were even people making buttons that said `Save the Bugs,'” McWhorter added.


Related links:
* Sandia National Laboratories
* Karlsruhe Research Center
* Forbes ASAP


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.