Panelists discuss MEMS growth challenges at Photonics West

By Debra Vogler, Senior Technical Editor

Whether it’s pursuing MEMS in medical device applications, or MEMS/MOEMS for use in displays, communications, consumer products, lithography, or sensors and actuators – especially those used for toys – the opportunities for MEMS span sectors and industries. A panel discussion moderated by Edward Motamedi, CTO of Revoltech Microsystems, covered the challenges and possibilities for MEMS growth at Photonics West, held Jan. 22-27 in San Jose, CA.

One hurdle common to many low-volume MEMS/MOEMS applications noted by Richard Payne, VP of engineering and manufacturing at Polychromix, is that, “Ninety-nine out of 100 MEMS designers don’t understand the value of working in a constrained process environment,” noted Payne. “You can’t run a fab with random processes.”

Another panelist, Henne van Heeren of Enabling M3, described the frustration he has experienced in the past: “My main battles have always been about running new MEMS processes.”

Anyone who thinks data storage might be key to MEMS growth – especially with Apple Computer putting an HDD into its iPod – was reminded by van Heeren’s observations that data storage products have experienced severe price erosion: “Flash memory has been going down fast, but magnetic flash is going down even faster,” said van Heeren.

Professor Ming Wu, UC-Berkeley, said that the challenges of commercializing MOEMS include choosing to go fab vs. fabless, or customized vs. standard foundry processes. He also asked attendees to speculate as to what would happen if telecommunications disappeared: “Who would pick up development costs for other MOEMS applications, and how could they be manufactured cost-effectively?”

The medical device market represents one sector that can at least make some progress, explained VC and managing director George Savage of Spring Ridge Ventures, because while the applications are low volume, they are high in value. A common attribute targeted by healthcare VCs is a product that sees market “pull” as opposed to a technology “push” -i.e., “How can I meet an unmet clinical need?” While it may take time to navigate the clinical trials and other regulatory hoops, the medical device market is seen as attractive because value-add and margins can be very high; additionally, the markets are stable. “Most companies that will succeed will primarily identify themselves as medical companies – not as a MEMS company,” noted Savage.

“The challenge for commercialization of MEMS/MOEMS is adapting to existing CMOS-compatible processes,” Motamedi told WaferNews. “It is nice to plan for standardization, but this is a tough issue as long as MEMS and MOEMS products are in the low-volume stage.” Among the MEMS/MOEMS commercialization successes of 2004 cited were MEMS microphones and the continued success of accelerometers (especially for portable peripherals). Also noteworthy were Texas Instruments’ DLP devices [displays], “whose commercial achievements led directly to rapid learning cycles and is in turn, leading to MOEMS technological maturity,” said Motamedi.


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