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Thursday, 5 April 2012

How to corner the MEMS market: Government investment in the manufacture of micromachines could pay huge dividends

April 5, 2012

Many of the MEMS developed by principal research scientist Luis Fernando Velásquez-García — from thrusters for tiny satellites to systems for spinning out flexible functional materials — involve dense arrays of tiny semiconductor tips, like those shown here. Image: Luis Fernando Velásquez-García

As the United States seeks to reinvigorate its job market and move past economic recession, MIT News examines manufacturing’s role in the country’s economic future through this series on work at the Institute around manufacturing.

In the last decade, MEMS (microelectromechanical devices) have wrought revolutions in several industries: Arrays of micromirrors, for instance, enabled digital film projectors, and accelerometers like those in Microsoft’s Wii controller have changed gaming. But commercially successful MEMS represent a tiny sampling of the prototypes developed in academic and industry labs — from supersensitive biological sensors to films that can turn any surface into a loudspeaker to devices that harvest energy from motion.

The problem is that most current MEMS are built using the same techniques used to produce computer chips, and those techniques are expensive. “Over the past 20 or 30 years, the cost of a tool that performs a specific function in a semiconductor manufacturing plant has risen quite dramatically — orders of magnitude,” says Martin Schmidt, a professor of electrical engineering and associate provost at MIT. “As these capital costs have escalated, the minimum market you need to be able to access just keeps going up.” Many experimental MEMS — as ingenious and even useful as they may be — simply don’t command markets large enough to justify the expense of building a new manufacturing facility.

By the same token, however, semiconductor manufacturing has such high capital costs that exporting it may not be cost-effective. “It’s not about labor costs, because the capital costs are paramount,” Schmidt says. As a consequence, “if a particular government or region of the world is willing to subsidize the access to capital to create those facilities, you can cause the growth of that industry in your area.”

Schmidt points to Abu Dhabi, which is emerging as a center of semiconductor manufacture, even though per-capita income in the United Arab Emirates is higher than it is in the United States, and to the Albany NanoTech complex in Albany, N.Y., which is funded by industry in exchange for state investments in local educational institutions and in energy efficiency. Indeed, Schmidt says, the investment that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) made in MEMS in the 1990s bears a great deal of credit for the relatively small number of MEMS success stories.
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