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Despite advances, MEMS industry still feels growing pains

MEMS PARTNER: The incorporation of non-CMOS materials in IMT's processes requires flexibility and keen attention to defectivity.


Developed to help resuscitate the human immune system, a biomedical device has 32 motors that enable it to rapidly isolate 200 million to 250 million stem cells. If it works as designed, the device and its massively parallel sorting capability will represent a technological leap in cell sorting that could greatly benefit both chemotherapy patients and victims of radiation exposure.

"We believe this switching mechanism is the fastest MEMS on the planet," boasts Monteith Heaton, vice president of marketing and sales for Innovative Micro Technology (IMT), the Santa Barbara, CA–based fab that is partnering on the sorter project. "It goes from 0 to 4 meters per second and back to zero in less than 20 microseconds. It actually accelerates at about 12,000 Gs." Current cell sorters are 20 times slower and—at $400,000 apiece—expensive, emphasizes Michael Shillinger, IMT's vice president of operations.

Both men claim other advances for the cell-sorting microelectromechanical system. Because it's encapsulated, "the only thing that touches the fluid is the chip itself. The chip is disposable,"” Heaton notes. "You sort one patient, you throw [the device] away. There have been cancer trials done with banks of those $400,000 cell-sorting systems. And [with this sorter] you'd be able to do that same job, with the chip in a semidesktop environment using a less-expensive machine, for a very reasonable cost—to basically rescue people from those two [medical] situations.

"Our goal here—and we're discussing partnering with a variety of different biomedical firms—is to build the chips and have someone else build the machine itself," he explains. "They would sell and market the product."

IMT has been working on the project for approximately a year and a half, Heaton says. DARPA has provided approximately $7 million in development funds. An additional $1.5 million has come through the U.S. Army Medical Command. The timetable for commercialization is sometime in 2007.

Despite the obvious enthusiasm of both Shillinger and Heaton, their excitement has to be tempered by one frustrating fact for the industry: rapid commercial introduction of MEMS in high volumes remains an elusive goal.

In a 2003 survey, the MEMS Industry Group (MIG) reported that the most significant problems holding back growth are a segmented market and high entry barriers. "There is perception and acceptance that MEMS will enable sensor pervasiveness, leading to significant new markets," the report states. "While these markets are envisioned, they have yet to be created. The investment needed in the design and simulation of multidomain devices, as well as in the fabrication of these highly diverse structures, is high and has delayed widespread adoption."

Further hampering commercial prospects are the two separate issues of feasibility versus manufacturability and of fab capability. On the former point, the report notes that MEMS designers tend to concentrate on proof-of-concept demonstrations rather than ease of manufacturing. "This trend results in quick feasibility demonstration but slow production ramp-up. Because of that, the fabs do not see their volumes materialize, delaying the creation of new markets."

Regarding the second issue, the report says that most fabs provide expertise in "nearly every MEMS device category." Among the companies surveyed, 90% of the devices fall into six categories: inertial sensors such as accelerometers; optical mirrors; microfluidic devices or microarrays such as reservoirs; components for RF communications; physical sensors such as pressure or radiation devices; and ink-jet nozzles.

The need to cover all these bases requires the use of nonstandard materials and processes. This diversity of concepts "is one of the major hindrances to both faster time to production and manufacturing repeatability," the report emphasizes.

As an indication of the industry's low production level, the report notes that,   on average, the surveyed fabs were running at 30% capacity. MIG's survey covers what the authors call "a significant segment" of the industry and more than 60 noncaptive MEMS fabs around the world. The participants fall into two categories: worldwide MEMS fabs and U.S. MEMS companies that outsource production.

In his most recent annual report card, Roger Grace, a San Francisco–based high-tech consultant, gives the MEMS industry a grade of C for its marketing efforts. Grace, the former president of the Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation (MANCEF), says MEMS companies in the main "have been created by strong, technically oriented people who tend to believe in the 'build-it-and-they-shall-come' mantra. Not much formal market research historically has been conducted to determine customer needs and price points."

In contrast, Grace urges the industry to look to its semiconductor counterpart as a good example of how to improve its business fortunes. "For MEMS to be truly successful, a major effort must be undertaken by solution providers to understand customers' needs, to provide unique solutions, and to provide adequate resources to promote each company's market position, brand, and approach to solving these issues…. Faster, better, cheaper is the mantra of the semiconductor industry in direct response to customers' needs. MEMS producers need to adopt a similar customer-centric attitude."

Grace emphasizes that the MEMS industry has advanced significantly in its commercialization efforts since 1998, the year he published the first report card. The consultant says the industry spent robustly on R&D before that year, helped in particular by DARPA. The defense agency's staff members showed "visionary leadership" that led to "judicious investments" and a foundation for commercial progress. Private industry funding has also been robust, he notes.

Starting with a C+ grade in 1998, the MEMS industry infrastructure has improved to an A in Grace's latest assessment. Instead of using chipmakers' hand-me-downs, most fabs today use 6-in. wafers in high-volume settings. Instead of having to modify semiconductor process tools, process engineers have access to some MEMS-specific tools from manufacturers such as EV Group and Suss MicroTec.

In a further development, companies such as Coventor and MEMScap market industry-specific design automation tools for use by the more than 60 MEMS foundries worldwide, Grace notes. The consultant emphasizes that value is "one of the most significant barriers to commercialization of MEMS. Packaging and testing are most costly for MEMS today, while market applications drive prices to the bottom."

The two trends are in conflict, Grace continues, "and one must give in. When MEMS provides value, such as Pentium processors, or if packaging and testing can be brought to the level of a few pennies, the cost/value hurdle will be removed and the floodgates will open for MEMS."

Another lesson the industry can take from its semiconductor counterpart is the development of standards, says Grace, who gives the industry a B in this regard. In the past three years, the industry has increased its support for standards. In particular, it has begun to develop the first two MEMS process benchmarks. He also noted eight meetings in the past two years of the SEMI MEMS standards committee. Both developments bode well because standards are the mark of a maturing industry, Grace asserts.

Two more lessons that the semiconductor industry offers are the development of technology roadmaps and the development of technology clusters. Grace gives the MEMS industry an A for the two roadmaps in existence. Published in 2003, MANCEF's International Commercialization Roadmap has 614 pages covering standards, infrastructure, and other issues. Introduced in September 2003, the Nexus document "is a product-market roadmap created to a large degree from inputs of the numerous Nexus User-Supplier Clubs."

Grace awards technology cluster development a B. He added the subject to his report card in 2003 to acknowledge the increasing value that regional and federal governments place on micro- and nanotechnology as viable businesses. At least 20 MEMS clusters have been established since 1989, when the first one was formed in Dortmund, Germany. Again, Grace points out that these high-tech geographic concentrations have been standard practice in the semiconductor industry for decades, with Silicon Valley and New England's Route 128 being two obvious examples.

MIG says its survey turned up a difference in the expectations of fabs and MEMS companies that outsource their production. The three issues involve fab service, process standards, and comparisons between the MEMS and semiconductor industries. MIG notes that fab customers believe that fab offerings are too broad. An overabundance of design, packaging, and testing services is not critical to customers and can cause economic hardship for the fabs themselves, according to the survey.

Second, standardized processes are still controversial for customers who prefer semicustom processes because the clients believe their devices are unique. Third, the MEMS industry and its semiconductor counterpart have distinct differences and different maturity levels. At the current stage of development, MEMS manufacturers cannot offer the same economic benefits as chipmakers. The differences mean that treating the industries as one entity only hurts the MEMS producers, the survey authors write. As a result, venture capital stays away because of a fundamental misunderstanding of performance expectations.

Careful examination of the survey results led the authors to recommend a course of action that the MEMS industry should follow in order to maximize production. The first of three recommendations concerns design for manufacturability. The suggestions include working with universities to "create MEMS programs that will drive the efficient use of manufacturing design guidelines." Further advice is to identify funding in order to commission a group of experts to produce a handbook on optimized design. The final suggestion is to establish working groups in important technical areas such as process control and reliability.

The second recommendation concerns standardization. Under that heading, the survey authors suggest three courses of action. The first is the creation of a fab matrix that identifies core fab capabilities to help plants specialize in specific processes. The second is the compilation of a best-practices fabrication handbook, and the third is to work with SEMI, NIST, and other standards bodies "to drive the creation of sufficient statistical data and generate adequate reliability standards for relevant categories of MEMS devices."

The survey makes four recommendations under the economics heading. They are: track time to market and identify opportunities for reusing processes and design tools, facilitate the development of cost models for major MEMS categories, work with groups such as SEMI "to drive consistent roadmaps and cost models," and establish a MEMS conference as an industry showcase.

IMT itself notes that the MEMS industry has had mixed success over the last decade. The foundry-customer relationship carries a portion of the blame, according to the company. Even though funds have been available for new applications in areas such as optical telecommunications and biomedical devices, high-volume manufacturing has yet to materialize.

IMT's Heaton insists that the company prefers to be considered a manufacturing partner rather than a foundry. It's a key distinction, he asserts. "We call it more of a manufacturing partner. . .because the foundry model says you give us your GDS files [for reticle production] and we pump stuff out. It just doesn't work that way in MEMS. We call ourselves a partner because we offer this unique mix of design, prototyping, process development, and high-volume manufacturing, and of course we have a lot of metrology and test capability as well."

Since taking over the 14-acre site of a former data storage plant in 2000, IMT has signed up 25 projects with 24 partners. One of the important lessons learned has been that simple rules of fabrication do not apply and that flexibility and keen attention to contamination issues are required because of the need to incorporate non-CMOS materials in the process.

Process control is taken "very, very seriously here at IMT," says Shillinger, the company's operations chief. "All of us came from production. We're good at development. Obviously, we've been doing this for five years, and 24 customers is evidence of that." —JC

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