The Times, They Are A-changin’


The times, they are a-changin’ - Bob Dylan famously announced in 1964, creaing an anthem for America’s social revolution in the 1960s. Today, a smaller revolution is taking place with the commercialization of MEMS technology. Only a decade or so ago, MEMS design and manufacturing know-how was in the hands of several vertically integrated companies such as Honeywell, HP, Delco, and Bosch.

The maturity level of MEMS technology required companies to own a wafer fab and have the system knowledge to incorporate MEMS chips into their products. MEMS chip design, chip fabrication, and packaging of MEMS products were all proprietary.

However, MEMS-research defense spending in the 1990s and optical MEMS telecomm-development funding established a critical mass of core MEMS technologies, as well as experienced engineers and managers. Additionally, mainstream IC companies such as Analog Devices, Freescale, and Texas Instruments embraced MEMS technology to create significant new businesses.

Now, the proliferation of MEMS technology has allowed numerous companies to break free from the need to own a wafer fab. Pure-play MEMS foundries such as Micralyne, Tronics Microsystems, and IMT to CMOS fabs servicing the MEMS market like Sony, Dalsa, X-Fab and Cypress Semiconductor have entered the market. The MEMS industry has started to emulate the CMOS fabless model and focus on intellectual property (IP) at the design level.

At the same time, it is clear that, like CMOS, many high-volume MEMS fabs will be located in Asia. Pacific Rim nations - including Japan, Korea, and Taiwan - are gearing up for MEMS production. Companies are also looking for Asian partners even if they already have some existing manufacturing capability. That the technology and markets have matured enough to attract the attention of production houses in Asia is a healthy sign.

This new freedom means that MEMS foundries are experiencing rapid growth as more and more companies go fabless. In addition, innovative Silicon Valley start-up companies like SiTime and Invensense can introduce MEMS products for consumer markets.

Figure 1. Global MEMS Market - 2005 to 2010 (Courtesy of Yole Développement).
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Figure 1 shows the projected growth of the MEMS business over the next few years from a market study conducted by Yole Développement. This analysis predicts double-digit annual growth for the MEMS industry, from $5B sales in 2005 to nearly $10B in 2010. More new applications are opening up for MEMS technology, including biomedical and energy markets.

Since the MEMS market is growing at a significantly faster rate than the IC industry, and given that many of the new applications of the technology address mass markets such as consumer electronics, it is not surprising that many mainstream IC companies are looking closely at manufacturing MEMS products. Today, an 8" CMOS fab running 0.25-µm technology may not be exciting for IC fabrication - but it makes an ideal home for many of the emerging high-volume MEMS applications. Yole Développement found that all of the top 50 IC companies worldwide are engaged in MEMS technology, even if just at the development level.

Many mainstream IC companies are using MEMS technology for 3-D IC interconnect development. Process technologies originally developed for MEMS chip fabrication are now being used to create through-wafer vias and 3-D wafer stacks. This use of micromachining technology for IC wafer-level packaging (WLP) applications is not new; ShellCase demonstrated some pioneering work in this field and achieved significant commercial success in doing so.

While MEMS technology may not be causing the kind of upheaval Dylan refers to, it is creating a quiet revolution of sorts, and is starting to be adopted as a key technology of choice.

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AMIR MIRZA, Ph.D., international product manager, may be contacted at SUSS MicroTec, Inc., 228 Suss Dr., Waterbury, VT 05677; 802/244-5181; E-mail: [email protected]