Few firms have figured out how to make MEMS quickly and cheaply

Nov. 13, 2002 — After holding steady in 2001, few people will argue that there is potential demand for MEMS devices across a wide range of industries. Just look at leading applications of microelectromechanical systems that will use 85 million packaged airbag accelerometers and a whopping 1.58 billion read/write magnetic heads for computer hard drives.

But the numbers tend to obscure another reality — that the transition from concept to high-volume production is both expensive and risky. While engineering resources exist for taking a good idea for a microdevice through design, prototyping, testing and high-volume production, the infrastructure for doing so is still evolving. There are no guarantees of success, no standards to follow and packaging problems continue to be almost insurmountable.

That being said, however, the market for MEMS is expected to surge almost 200 percent over the next three years as sharply lower component prices drive volume sales and several end markets expand their use of the products.

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In fact, according to a recent report by German-based microtechnology and electronics analysts WTC, the market for RF MEMS (or wireless) alone will grow rapidly over the next few years and will reach over 2.8 billion units and a turnover of more than $1 billion in 2007. Marlene Bourne, an analyst with In-Stat/MDR, has said that the market for MEMS devices is expected to rise from $3.9 billion in 2001 to $9.5 billion in 2006.

WTC forecasts that the RF MEMS market will be dominated by high-volume, low-price communications applications, including mobile phones and Global Positioning System devices, while low volume applications, such as those for military, space and instrumentation, will share the remainder. The primary driver for the rapid expansion of MEMS remains in the automotive industry, where manufacturers are deploying a wide range of MEMS products.

But the companies that have successfully produced MEMS products have done so despite a lack of standards and having to work with a technology that is fragmented in terms of engineering resources.

The most prominent success story is Analog Devices Inc. The $2.5 billion semiconductor company recently announced its has shipped its 100 millionth MEMS device and recently achieved a milestone in high performance analog and mixed signal technology with its proprietary iMEMS (integrated microelectromechanical systems) manufacturing process.

iMEMS technology and manufacturing processes use surface micromachining to build very small, yet more intricate and precisely patterned MEMS structures and then integrate them with all the necessary signal conditioning and self-test circuitry on the same chip. Analog Devices’ iMEMS acceleration sensors are used in many applications, including crash detection for airbag deployment in automobiles.

“We were the first to commercialize MEMS acceleration sensors when we shipped the first sensors for airbag crash detection in 1993 and there’s been a tremendous amount of learning along the way, said David Krakauer, program manager for Analog Devices. There are 500 people, three R&D centers and three manufacturing sites dedicated to high volume iMEMS production.

Corning IntelliSense of Wilmington, Mass., has also found a way to produce MEMS in high volumes for low costs. It designs, develops, and manufactures MEMS for telecommunications, life sciences and microinstrumentation applications for outside customers.

The company has been awarded a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Advanced Technology Program (ATP) to develop embedded digital interface and control circuits for MEMS systems. As part of the two-year program, Corning and the ATP will allocate a total of $5.6 million to this research.

Despite the Analog Devices and Corning Intellisense success stories, MEMS technology still needs to jump some manufacturing barriers before other companies can compete on such a high volume. “The biggest challenge for MEMS producers is developing a cost-effective product, since the cost of developing a process technology and manufacturing capability for a MEMS product is so high combined with relatively low volumes,” said Michael Huff, founder of the MEMS Exchange in Reston, Va., a clearinghouse that puts developers in touch with foundries.

Huff said he believes the solution could be found in a modularized approach to manufacturing MEMS. By assembling modules together sequentially, the MEMS designer can be afforded considerable design and process freedom but is able to reuse processing capabilities that are reproducible and repeatable.

“We at the MEMS Exchange are taking this modularized approach in some new processes we are offering through our enlisted foundries,” Huff said. For instance, we offer the UCB Silicon Germanium process, allowing deposition of a sacrificial layer and a structural layer for surface micromachining onto fully metallized microelectronics wafers. The idea is that the microelectronics wafers can be from any IC foundry and therefore affords a lot of freedom with respect to the electronics design.”


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