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Technology: Introduction to MEMS

What is MEMS? — Microelectromechanical systems is the integration of mechanical elements, sensors, actuators, and electronics using batch-level microfabrication technology.

The rapid growth of MEMS technology has generated a host of diverse developments in many different fields, ranging from automotive and consumer to medicine, pharmaecutics, manufacturing, space, consumer products, and bioengineering. MEMS technology features small size, fast response time, high precision, and integration of transducers with control electronics. In addition, MEMS fabrication achieves low cost through batch fabrication techniques.

What are the advantages of MEMS?
  • High accuracy

  • Small size

  • Fast response time

  • High precision

  • Systems integration

  • Lower costs
 

Traditionally, U.S. universities have been on the cutting edge of micromachining technology. The University of Michigan, University of California at Berkely, and MIT are among the top academic programs in this field. The challenge is transferring university-based innovations into commercially significant products. Governments, universities, and companies are beginning to collaborate in achieving this goal. Investment in MEMS is increasing with significant commitments in the hundreds of millions of dollars on the parts of U.S., Japanese, and European governments in recognition of the strategic value of this technology in enabling economic growth.

MEMS are chip-level devices that can sense or control the physical environment created using microfabrication technology. While the electronics are fabricated using integrated circuit (IC) process sequences (e.g., CMOS, Bipolar, or BICMOS processes), the micromechanical components are fabricated using compatible "micromachining" processes that selectively etch away parts of the silicon wafer or add new structural layers to form the mechanical and electromechanical devices. MEMS promises to revolutionize nearly every product category by bringing together silicon-based microelectronics with micromachining technology, thereby, making possible the realization of complete systems-on-a-chip. MEMS is truly an enabling technology allowing the development of smart products by augmenting the computational ability of microelectronics with the perception and control capabilities of microsensors and microactuators. MEMS is also an extremely diverse and fertile technology, both in the applications it is expected to be used, as well as in how the devices are designed and manufactured. MEMS technology makes possible the integration of microelectronics with active perception and control functions, thereby, greatly expanding the design and application space.

Microelectronic integrated circuits (ICs) can be thought of as the "brains" of systems and MEMS augments this decision-making capability with "eyes" and "arms", to allow microsystems to sense and control the environment. In its most basic form, the sensors gather information from the environment through measuring mechanical, thermal, biological, chemical, optical, and magnetic phenomena; the electronics process the information derived from the sensors and through some decision making capability direct the actuators to respond by moving, positioning, regulating, pumping, and filtering, thereby, controlling the environment for some desired outcome or purpose. Since MEMS devices are manufactured using batch fabrication techniques, similar to ICs, unprecedented levels of functionality, reliability, and sophistication can be placed on a small silicon chip at a relatively low cost. As a breakthrough technology, allowing unparalleled synergy between hitherto unrelated fields of endeavor such as biology and microelectronics, many new MEMS applications will emerge, expanding beyond that which is currently identified or known.

Although MEMS devices are extremely small, MEMS technology is not about size. Furthermore, MEMS is not about making things out of silicon, even though silicon possesses excellent materials properties making it an attractive choice for many high-performance mechanical applications. Instead, MEMS is a manufacturing technology; a new way of making complex electromechanical systems using batch fabrication techniques similar to the way integrated circuits are made and making these electromechanical elements along with electronics.

This new manufacturing technology has several distinct advantages.

  • MEMS is an extremely diverse technology that potentially could significantly impact every category of products. Already, MEMS is used for everything ranging from neural probes to active suspension systems for automobiles. The nature of MEMS technology and its diversity of useful applications make it potentially a far more pervasive technology than even integrated circuit microchips.

  • Second, MEMS blurs the distinction between complex mechanical systems and integrated circuit electronics. Historically, sensors and actuators are the most costly and unreliable part of a macroscale sensory-actuator-electronics system. In comparison, MEMS technology allows these complex electromechanical systems to be manufactured using batch fabrication techniques allowing the cost and reliability of the sensors and actuators to be put into parity with that of integrated circuits. Interestingly, even though the performance of MEMS devices and systems is expected to be superior to macroscale components and systems, the price can be much lower.

Future Potential of MEMS

Microsystems have the enabling capability and potential similar to those of microprocessors in the 1970s and software in the 1980s.

Since MEMS is a nascent and synergistic technology, many new applications will emerge, expanding the markets beyond that which is currently identified or known. As breakthrough technology allowing unparalleled synergy between hitherto unrelated fields of endeavor such as biology and microelectronics, MEMS is forecasted to have growth similar to its parent IC technology. ISSYS is one of the most experienced independent MEMS companies in business and is seeking to capitalize on the tremendous potential in this emerging field.

To learn more about MEMS in general, please visit some of the following websites. ISSYS is not responsible for the content of these websites.


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