A discussion by a panel of experts at Photonics West, held in late January in San Jose, CA, on the commercialization of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and the role nanotechnology might play featured some complementary and contrasting views, and surprisingly frank statements by members of the audience.
According to M. Edward Motamedi, president and CTO, Revoltech Microsystems, and SPIE MF2004 symposium chair, commercial MEMS/MOEMS (optical MEMS) are still low-volume products, but manufacturing processes are compatible with semiconductor manufacturing. "This process compatibility is the key to making MEMS/MOEMS products cost-effectively—an important concern for monolithic systems such as CMOS MEMS or CMOS MOEMS," noted Motamedi. However, with respect to continued scaling, he noted that, even if a 22nm process becomes a reality in 2016, chip manufacturers still face many hurdles to tune semiconductor equipment (for use in MEMS/NEMS manufacturing) to be cost-effective.
Stephen Senturia, chairman and CTO, Polychromix and professor of electrical engineering, emeritus, MIT, said, "Unless the minimum market exists, a MEMS chip actually costs a lot more than you think. Many extra chips must be built just to keep the process qualified," he continued, examining a hypothetical product line. "If you can't sell 100,000 parts per year, you must treat the fab as a fixed cost—not a variable cost," noting that market size is measured in chip units.
Senturia questioned whether or not there will be enough total production volume in a given process to support a MEMS infrastructure. As an example, he asked what will happen to the vendors who were planning to make money by building chips for six or seven optical switch companies, since very few of those companies have survived.
Regarding nanotechnology, Motamedi said that, "If the future trend of nano-technology demonstrates process compatibility with micromachining, then it will definitely play an important role for advancing MEMS/MOEMS and their commercialization."
A few attendees noted how nanotechnology has become a kind of fad, in some cases tacked on as a way to obtain funding. Senturia was not interested in the nano label. "What determines whether something is commercialized is if people will buy it," he declared.
Marion Scott, director of the Microsystems Science, Technology and Components Center at Sandia National Labs, made a case for nanotechnology bringing a high value-add to MEMS/MOEMS. He cited nano-engineering coatings that enable chemical separation and nano-engineered surfaces that enable the collection of nanoparticles. Sandia has used these nano-technologies to develop sensors for chemical, biological agent, and explosives detection.
Much was made by attendees of the impact VC funding could have on the MEMS industry—the dichotomy between making a fast profit vs. growing the MEMS market. Some wondered if the investment community had remembered the lessons learned from the dot-com bubble and would have the patience to wait, rather than expect immediate returns.
Panel moderator Ayman El-Fatatry, customer manager for BAE Systems' Advanced Technology Center, sensed caution in panel members' responses expressed in terms of timescales and returns for the commercialization of both micro- and nanotechnologies.
Spirited discussion and debate was sparked when one attendee remarked that the seduction of Moore's Law has taken the world economy to a dead end. There is no Moore's Law for MEMS or nanotechnology, said one audience member. Another remarked that Moore's Law sets up unrealistic expectations. Another attendee remarked that Moore's Law is a self-fulfilling prophecy and a blessing for equipment suppliers because they know what they have to do, but it doesn't apply to every product. Still another asserted that things will have to be developed because someone wants a product and is willing to pay for it.
The intensity of the commentary was surprising, but it was clear from the panelists' presentations that, whether or not there will be a monolithic-type market for them, new nano- and MEMS materials and devices are being developed and finding uses in a broad array of products. — D.V.