Opinion: Micro, nano wrestle with similar challenges

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Aug. 1, 2005 — There is little debate among technologists working in micro and nano that the two fields are technologically unique. Microtechnology is viewed as the shaping of silicon using processes that are similar to integrated circuit manufacturing while nanotechnology is viewed as manipulating matter on an atomic scale using processes from chemistry. There is also a size difference of three orders of magnitude between classical treatment of the two technologies.

However, there is a strong opinion emerging that micro and nanotechnology are both facets of an industry and science that address matter, devices, and products on a scale where the phenomena that govern their performance are different from traditional science and engineering. Also, devices are treated on a scale similar to their size rather than inferred from observation of their macroscale performance.

As microtechnology was clearly an emergent application technology of the last decade, nanotechnology is beginning to emerge as an application technology of this decade. We have seen the transfer of microtechnology from process- and design-based research into product development research, and we are now starting to see this transfer take place with firms and products described as nano.

It is also important to recognize that the marketplace is less concerned about micro and nanotechnology and more so about products, applications, and standards. Similar strategies may be used to successfully deploy these technologies.

First and foremost, the challenge of product deployment involves finding the customer or the end-user. As with any emergent technology, this represents a challenge equal to, or in some cases greater than, the technological challenges. Firms will tend to use technologies that are well known to them, have recognized standards, and can be transferred to products using familiar methods. For the successful implementation of micro and/or nanotechnology, it is incumbent on the small tech industry to educate the marketplace about how these technologies can be leveraged. Whether the core science is micro or nano-based, the performance, reliability, manufacturing, and packaging must be expressed in terminology that the target industry understands.

Other than a handful of products where MEMS enjoy success over traditional technologies, (such as Analog Devices supplying accelerometers to the automotive market), the successful implementation of MEMS involved finding applications where other technologies simply did not work. For example, Bookham Technology launched the first integrated attenuator and optical receiver using MEMS technology. MEMS was the only solution that fit into the standardized package footprint and conformed with the electrical input/output of telecom products. Nanotechnology is beginning to see a similar trend with the emergence of nano-powered textiles that maintain the feel of traditional fabrics but offer orders of magnitude better wear resistance and color fastness.

Both micro and nanotechnology also share common ground in the way that standardization is occurring. While the IC industry enjoys an easily measurable metric in that the number of transistors on a circuit can be counted, small technology does not have an equivalent “unit cell.” What is common is that standardization in micro and nano can be treated with the processes used to make the end products. A recent report by MANCEF (Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation) states that a small number of processes can enable most of the available devices and the additional tools to enable the other remaining few percent are very small in number.

The product adoption cycle of (usually government-funded) research, customer education, early adopters, mainstream acceptance and maturity are common to both micro and nanotechnology. Successful firms will be the ones that execute this curve efficiently and evolve at the correct rate to match the maturing marketplace.


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