You’ve probably heard Aesop's fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs. In MEMS technology transfer, there is a similar fable — one of the elusive “golden wafer.” It was a term coined by Alissa Fitzgerald, founder/managing member of AMFitzgerald and Associates. The golden wafer fixation happens when an engineer makes one great wafer in the lab and tries in earnest to replicate it, to no avail.
Like all good fables, there’s always a moral to the story. For MEMS technology transfer, when trying to get from lab to fab to high-yield production, the moral of the story is that you can’t go it alone and that there are resources available to help you. According to Mary Ann Maher, CEO and founder of SoftMEMS, “previously, tech transfer was a major stumbling block for startups where they may run out of money while trying to get out their first prototypes due to unrealistic expectations and lack of good communications on both sides of the transfer. Now, the situation is improving, with a well-connected supply chain, the use of standards and CAD tools, standard unit processes, and realistic timelines... companies are starting to get though the tech transfer phase faster and with more success."
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One resource that my organization, MEMS Industry Group, is building in collaboration with our members is the Tech Transfer Wikia, which will be a “how- to” of best practices for taking a MEMS device design — including designs developed at a commercial fab, university, or startup — to manufacturing using an external partner. This wikia is planned to go live on Sept. 5 and will be open to the general MEMS community and, just like Wikipedia, the general public. And we welcome feedback and engagement.
MEMS Tech Transfer Wikia
For the wikia, the transfer could either be fab-to-fab or line-to-line. The wikia may consider designs that work at the system level (and are proven) and can be built with confidence, with priority given to the transfer of “high-yield designs” (with predictability, repeatability) over prototypes, processes, or design concepts. For the wikia to be useful, some level of proof that the design is viable for production is required, and users must keep in mind that yield/cost requirements can vary significantly depending on application and segment and that a low-volume, high-cost product doesn’t need the same level of maturity as a high-volume consumer product.
Challenges and Opportunities
As I’ve stated before in my Design News column, MEMS is not for the faint of heart, and it is not without its challenges. Tomas Bauer, VP of sales for Silex, believes that “MEMS tech transfer is a challenge today mainly due to the extreme tool and design dependency of a MEMS process. Even transfer between tools of the same kind can be challenging enough due to unique characteristics of each individual tool build of the same make and model.” Fitzgerald of AMFitzgerald and Associates cautioned that “tech transfer has always been a challenge and will continue to be until there are more standards for how MEMS are designed and processed and for how data is exchanged between designers and foundries.”
But with challenges there are always opportunities. Industry veteran Jim Knutti, president of Acuity, believes that the “huge variety of opportunities in different markets means successful commercialization requires understanding the specific considerations, requirements, and language in all of these different areas.” He cautions that the challenge is to “understand all of the moving parts and to be prepared to provide complete details in a lot of technologies and background to suppliers.” No small task, indeed.
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David Horsley, CTO of Chirp Microsystems, believes that there are many opportunities for MEMS as “high-volume MEMS devices (gyroscopes, accelerometers, microphones, pressure sensors...) have created a lot of know-how in the industry, from foundry, to packaging, to test, etc. Many of these things can be adapted to new product introduction (instead of inventing your own solution from scratch).”
It’s always better to learn from the mistakes of others. So going back to the moral of this story, in order to do MEMS tech transfer successfully, you can’t count on your goose to lay the golden wafers but instead you must make friends in the MEMS supply chain and use the guidebook — in this case, the MEMS Industry Group’s Tech Transfer Wikia.
Karen Lightman is executive director of MEMS Industry Group (MIG), the trade association comprising more than 160 companies advancing MEMS and sensors across global markets.