STS sharpens its MEMS tools to carve a niche in industry

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Aug. 4, 2003 — Surface Technology Systems plc, a respected supplier of deep-etching tools to MEMS researchers, is now ready to serve the market for full-scale MEMS production. It just hopes the market is ready.

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STS’s tools are popular among academic and industrial MEMS research labs because they can make silicon structures that are much taller than they are wide. Technology director Andrew Chambers said STS’s machines have made devices as tall as 700 or 800 microns but only 20 microns wide; think of a 40-foot tree with a 12-inch trunk.

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Researchers love this capability because it gives them the flexibility to design devices of almost any shape. But until now, it’s been difficult to make more than one working device at a time — much less crank them out continuously to satisfy potential volume users like the automotive industry.

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“We’re beginning to transition from technology at any cost to a market where you have to deliver a certain cost-per-die,” Chambers said. “It’s not enough to have a process that works. It needs to be reliable, and the devices that come out all need to be functional.”

The U.K.-based company, publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange with 64 percent ownership by Sumitomo Precision Products, has captured 75-80 percent of the existing market for deep silicon etching — mostly in universities and industrial research labs.

STS was an early licensee of the “Bosch process” from the German company Robert Bosch, a type of deep reactive ion etching (DRIE) that involves alternating etching and deposition to create deep structures with vertical walls. STS’s version of the process is trademarked as Advanced Silicon Etch, or ASE. Chambers said the company has a five-year head start on the Bosch process’s other licensees, which include Oxford Instruments PLC, Alcatel and Unaxis (formerly PlasmaTherm). In addition to being a licensee, STS also counts Bosch among its clients.

STS’s installed base of 300 machines is split between 70 percent research and 30 percent industry. With a new product line introduced in June that lets users upgrade from research machines to full-scale manufacturing, rather than having to replace their equipment, chief executive Ian Smith hopes to keep his research users and expand his base of industrial customers until they make up at least half of a much larger pie.

Martin Schmidt, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has used STS equipment for seven years. “[DRIE] technology has revolutionized MEMS, and STS is arguably the market leader,” he said. The challenge in industrializing deep etching, he added, is that it’s not cost-effective for many devices in small quantities, and MEMS makers often can’t just increase production to amortize the cost. While semiconductor manufacturers can crank out millions of identical chips to keep the cost-per-chip low, there may not be a market for millions of a given MEMS device. “STS understands these issues well and is attempting to address them with their new tools.”

Research-quality fabrication tools generally cost in the range of $300,000 each, while industrial semiconductor fabrication equipment from giants like Applied Materials Inc. can run $3 million per machine, Chambers said. To keep its equipment affordable to the smaller companies likely to be developing MEMS-based products, STS’s new product line has a base price of $500,000 to $600,000.

Essential to the company’s success will be excellent 24/7 product support, Chambers said. Current users say STS is in good shape there. Avi Kornblit, technical manager at the New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium, has been treated well so far. “STS modified the etcher to meet our needs, and their support after the sale has been excellent.”

“They have been very quick to provide process assistance when asked,” says John Hughes, principal research engineer at the University of Illinois, who has two different STS tools. “This is something all vendors insist they will do, but rarely is their follow-up both timely and useful.”


Company file: Surface Technology Systems plc
(last updated Aug. 4, 2003)

Surface Technology Systems plc

Ticker symbol
London Stock Exchange: SRTS

Imperial Park
Gwent NP10 8UJ
United Kingdom

STS was founded in 1984 under the name Specialty Research Systems Ltd., functioning as a division of Electrotech Equipment Ltd. and focused on building plasma processing machines. Five years later, the company merged with two other Electrotech divisions, and in the following year (1990) was renamed Surface Technology Systems Ltd.

Early in its existence, STS licensed its deep reactive ion etching process from Robert Bosch. Sumitomo Precision Products became its Japanese distributor in 1993 and acquired the company in 1995.

After its acquisition, STS refocused its efforts to target MEMS and thin film products. It went public on the London Stock Exchange in 2000 and now holds nearly 80 percent of the silicon etching market.

Semiconductor micromachining equipment


$55.3 million (2002)

Small tech-related products and services
STS provides plasma etching and deposition equipment to makers of MEMS, optoelectronic and thin film-related components. The company’s trademarked process is called Advanced Silicon Etch (ASE).


  • Nigel J. Randall: chairman
  • Ian Smith: chief executive officer
  • Andy McQuarrie: director of strategic marketing
  • Andrew Chambers: director of technology
  • Leslie Lea: director of research and development
  • Selected strategic partners and customers

  • Sumitomo Precision Products
  • Bosch
  • Investment history
    Prior to going public, STS was funded by institutional and private investors; key financing came from its acquisition and subsequent $12 million public offering.

    Selected competitors

  • Alcatel
  • Oxford Instruments Plasma Technology
  • Unaxis 
  • Goals
    “In the short term, the goal is simple: Get the balance right between reducing costs and retaining skills for the future, then achieve a return to profitable growth,” said chief executive Ian Smith. “The long-term strategy is a matter for our major shareholder (Sumitomo Precision Products).”

    Why they’re in small tech
    “I joined this industry and in particular the equipment side, because I was familiar with engineering and manufacturing, but wanted to work in a global, growing industry sector,” Smith said.

    What keeps them up at night?
    “The upturn — when? Where? How quick? How long? Is there enough fuel in the tank to get us there? Are we ready to do what we need to do when we arrive?” Smith said.

    Relevant patents
    Method and apparatus for manufacturing a micromechanical device
    Apparatus for etching a workpiece

    Recent articles
    Surface, Xactix to co-market systems
    Surface Technology seeks to boost Japanese sales


  • URL:
  • Phone: [44] (163) 365-2400
  • Fax: [44] (163) 365-2405
  • E-mail: [email protected]
  • –Research by Gretchen McNeely


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