Micralyne, Canada collaborate to mass-produce MEMS on the cheap

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June 18, 2003 — The problem with making superior diagnostic equipment for hospitals and research facilities lies in the numbers. Creating customized chips for specific purposes is time-consuming and expensive. Mass-producing them can bring the cost down, but only when there is a broad demand for a specific type of chip.

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Researchers at Micralyne Inc. of Edmonton, Alberta, where leading-edge MEMS research is being conducted, think they have the answer to the problem. They have isolated a range of procedures used in production of diagnostic and analytical systems, and categorized them into groups that may be combined in production of customized equipment. The company says this should result in common procedures for customized equipment that will reduce cost and production time by as much as 90 percent.


Chris Backhouse, an associate professor in the electrical and computer engineering department of the University of Alberta, sees Micralyne’s approach as a means of circumventing the usual choices that depend on experience and the materials that are available.


“The problem with the usual approach is that it prevents integration — all problems must be solved in separate manufacturing runs. By developing versatile generic processes, Micralyne can offer something comparable to CMC’s (Canadian Microelectronics Corp.)  multiproject chip. Designs can be run through the same processes, or even on the same substrate. This greatly eases production and makes the fabrication more accessible.”


Bruce Alton, vice president of marketing and business development, telecommunications and electronics at Micralyne, described the procedure. “From a product-offering perspective, what happens is that researchers can submit designs based on design rules that we have come up with. Then, as the designs are collected, they can be run all at the same time in one run. By combining the designs in one run, the costs incurred by each individual researcher are substantially reduced in that they share the cost and do not have to pay for the whole run themselves.


“As compared to our corporate customers, university researchers do not generally have the financial resources to commit to an entire run themselves. This program gives them access to a technology that may have previously been out of reach.”


Cost reductions in this kind of mass production can be realized only if this equipment is produced in sufficient numbers to achieve such economies of scale. That is where a lot of coordinated effort is needed, and in the case of Micralyne, that coordination is supplied by CMC, a government-sponsored initiative to facilitate collaboration between government, industry, universities and research facilities to ride herd on leading-edge research and quality training in microelectronics and related initiatives.


CMC is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, matched by industrial contributions of technology, services and funds. Its job is to deliver research infrastructure for the design, manufacture and testing of microchips. This includes systems-on-chip research at universities to enable testing of high-performance microchip designs.


Alton said the procedure is not viewed as Micralyne’s answer to a problem that has plagued the MEMS industry: lack of a unified set of manufacturing standards. “However,” he said, “it takes a step in the right direction. But what is offered here is quite narrow in terms of manufacturing standards for the entire MEMS industry.


“I think the more important part of the mandate is to get researchers to use microfluidic technology and once this technology is used more broadly, standards will emerge based on commercial demand.”


But Backhouse does see Micralyne’s initiative as a positive step toward a unified approach. “For a large subset of designs/applications, this approach does address the basic problem of lack of a unified set of manufacturing standards in MEMS. The challenge is to extend the number of applications that can be covered.


“By initiating and nucleating such activities, the Canadian government can foster developments and innovation in an efficient manner,” he said. “Without this coordinated approach, these types of R&D in Canada would suffer greatly.”


Alton indicated that he believes the Canadian government is doing the right thing by helping to facilitate the small tech industry.


“It is important to note that most of the customers will be academic researchers and this is a seeding tool,” he said. “Thus, this type of technology will be more broadly used in the research community, and then, ultimately, in the industrial community.


“I think this type of program is pretty common in the semiconductor industry where researchers can collaborate and share the costs of a single run through a CMOS fab. There is very little intervention in private industry with this support but it will benefit industry when the work of researchers is commercialized. I would guess this would be considered as infrastructure support in Canada while programs like DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) offer more direct support to companies in the United States.”



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