SEMICON West preview: Maturing MEMS sector looks at ways to work together

Driven by the volume consumer business, the maturing MEMS sector starts to look at ways to reduce costs and speed time to market by coming together on things like easing integration, common test methods, and tool replacement parts. Fast-moving high-volume markets may also drive MEMS makers toward paring down the vast diversity of  processes and packages used, and into more collaboration on a mature ecosystem.

June 19, 2012 — The micro electro mechanical systems (MEMS) sector is poised for a multiyear period of steady double digit growth, with 20% average annual increases in unit demand, as systems makers find ever more uses for low cost, easy-to-integrate silicon sensors and actuators, reports Jean Christophe Eloy, founder and CEO of Yole Développement.  That means that even with steady price declines, the MEMS market will double, to reach $21 billion by 2017.  Volume consumer markets are driving much of this growth, as consumer applications accounted for more than 50% of total MEMS industry revenue in 2011.  “But growth will depend in part on how well MEMS makers manage to make these devices easier to use,” he notes. “A strong collective push will be needed to create a MEMS ecosystem to simplify the integration of MEMS into larger modules and systems, enabling non-specialists to use them without a steep learning curve.”

Measuring the same things in the same way

In another sign of the growing maturity of the MEMS industry, there’s been some real progress on agreement on measuring the same things in the same ways, to be able to compare results and agree on dimensional and property specifications. 

The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working with the MEMS community towards standard measurement methods for eight key parameters, to allow validation of in-house measurements, and enable meaningful comparisons of parameters measured by different tools, different labs, or different companies, to ease characterizing and trouble-shooting processes, calibrating instruments, and communicating among partners.

NIST will start to offer MEMS test chips with cantilevers, fixed-fixed beams, and structures for measuring step height, in-plane length and thickness, with reference data for parameters such as Young’s modulus, residual strain, strain gradient, step height and in-plane length and thickness measured on these structures by NIST, using SEMI and ASTM standard test methods, the consensus best practices developed by industry committees at these organizations.  Companies can then validate their own measurements on these chips against those made by NIST, supported by a user guide, the data analysis sheets for each measurement, a MEMS parameter calculator and additional information accessible online via the NIST Data Gateway ( with the keyword “MEMS Calculator”. 

At least one inspection and metrology equipment supplier is considering supplying the test chips and including software to automate running of the standard tests with its tools.

“We want to work with the MEMS community to facilitate widespread adoption and consistent usage of these standard test methods, and to make the reference materials available to as many people as possible,” says Janet Cassard, electronics engineer in NIST’s Semiconductor and Dimensional Metrology Division, who will explain these tools at the MEMS session at SEMICON West. “Developing the best practices and reference materials are typically prohibitively expensive for a single company to invest in on its own.”

The reference materials measure Young’s modulus, residual stress and stress gradient using the method in SEMI MS4, step height and thickness with SEMI MS2, residual strain with ASTM E 2245, strain gradient with ASTM E 2246, and in-plane length with ASTM E 2244. One test chip covers  material and dimensional properties for a composite oxide layer fabricated in a multi-user 1.5 µm CMOS process followed by a bulk-micromachining etch.  The other uses a polysilicon layer fabricated in a polysilicon multi-user surface-micromachining MEMS process with a backside etch. 

Maturing industry may move towards more commonality

Consumer markets, with their fast product iterations and price pressures, may be driving MEMS makers towards more common platforms and consistent package families to speed time to market and reduce costs.  “The high cost of packaging and test is a big challenge for the industry,” notes Micralyne director of strategic technology Peter Hrudey. “So we, as a MEMS community, should be starting the discussion about ways to increase commonality.”  He suggests the best near term possibility could be cooperative co-funding of research for base technology for emerging market needs. Could something like the model employed for the ARM common platform, licensed at reasonable rates for wide use and then further individually enhanced by users be a model for MEMS?   Or perhaps a combination of equipment makers and product designers can drive a move toward process commonality.  As product designers better understand the process characteristics they can design for manufacture more effectively, while the equipment manufacturers may tend toward increasing commonality through a desire to meet the needs of the biggest MEMS manufacturers.  “In a maturing industry the base technology becomes more common. No one player can drive the entire market forward on their own,” he notes.

Keeping legacy tools up and running by identifying common needs

Volume manufacture also means the MEMS industry will need start to think more about keeping its legacy equipment up and running.  While most parts can be relatively easily replaced with something similar, replacing the obsolete printed circuit boards that fail is more of a problem, especially for the more complex boards in 200mm tools that can no longer be fixed in house.  “The aftermarket of scavenged boards of unknown quality, unknown software version, and unknown availability is not a functional supply chain,” says SEMATECH ISMI obsolescent equipment program manager Bill Ross. “Plus chopping it up for parts takes a 200mm tool out of the available inventory forever.”

To help keep the 200mm tool base viable for the wider semiconductor industry, ISMI aims to facilitate the re-manufacture of critical boards, by identifying the key parts needs, then bringing together the original tool makers who have the IP but no longer support the parts, and potential re-manufacturers who could then make the needed quantities of the boards, if they had license to the IP and a market of potential users.  The organization is also setting up an online exchange for its members to speed the search for needed legacy parts.  Ross and others will be discussing this and other legacy tool issues in the Secondary Market session Wednesday afternoon, July 11 at SEMICON West.

These speakers from Yole, NIST and Micralyne join those from Hanking Electronics, IDT, Teledyne DALSA, Coventor, Applied Materials, Nikon and Scannano to talk about solutions for growing the MEMS sector to the next level at SEMICON West, July 10-12 in San Francisco. See for the complete agenda, and to register.

More on SEMICON West:

SEMICON West 2012 exhibits preview: Wafer processing and handling

SEMICON West preview: Conference keynotes and "Extreme Electronics"

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