SAN JOSE, Calif. — How do you accurately forecast the future of microelectromechanical system (MEMS) technology — the fastest growing semiconductor segment, according to global industry association SEMI? By tracing the devices’ history, then surveying the top 500 most innovative scholarly articles on MEMS, Alissa Fitzgerald, founder of MEMS design and development house A.M. Fitzgerald and Associates LLC, told an audience here at SEMI’s MEMS & Sensors Executive Congress.
“The next billion-dollar product is lurking in that university literature,” Fitzgerald said. The 2017 crop of academic papers reveals work on passive and near-zero-power sensors, as well as plastic- and paper-substrate alternatives to costly silicon for consumer and one-use, disposable specialty products.
A.M. Fitzgerald already has a bead on the future of MEMS, having worked to bring novel academic and entrepreneurial ideas to fruition at small MEMS fabs, such as Rogue Valley Microdevices, which uses both commercial silicon and SOI wafers from Soitec.
Alissa Fitzgerald, founder of MEMS design and development house A.M. Fitzgerald & Associates, speaks at SEMI’s MEMS & Sensors Executive Congress 2017.
Image: EE Times
In her conference talk, Fitzgerald traced MEMS technology’s roots to the development of alkaline-etched 3-D force sensors of the 1980s, which led to Kurt Petersen’s invention of pressure sensors based on bulk-silicon-micromachining technology. The pressure sensors enabled inkjet nozzles, which led to digital light processing (DLP) MEMS and then to the first use of an accelerometer (from Analog Devices Inc.) to trigger airbags faster than old-school, ball-in-tube mechanical tripwires.
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“From there a whole new era began with Bosch’s DRI [deep-reactive ion etching] process, which enabled the world’s first MEMS gyroscope. FBARs [thin-film bulk acoustic resonators] and the wide use of MEMS piezoelectric and aluminum nitride films also enabled the wide range of MEMS devices we have today,” said Fitzgerald. Another important invention was “precision-aligned eutectic bonding, which enabled InvenSense to wafer bond MEMS chips with its own ASICs for automatic hermitic sealing, eliminating the need for an extra capping step.”
Rogue Valley Microdevices (RVM) founder Jessica Gomez (right), whose company fabs A.M. Fitzgerald’s designs, crosses light sabers with Soitec business development director Nazila Pautou, whose company supplies RVM’s silicon-on-insulator (SOI) wafers.
Image: EE Times
According to Fitzgerald, in the early days the major players, such as ADI and Bosch, fulfilled the needs of more than 50% of the market, leaving the 400 small companies to split up the leftovers. But with the popularization of the smartphone, a massive consumer market has grown those 400 little guys into the dominant position.
So where did all these consumer market ideas come from? Fitzgerald traces them largely to the academic community which “nurses them along in university labs” as solutions looking for a problem. A.M. Fitzgerald and others design and develop the academics’ ideas into marketable products that fuel the current worldwide trillion dollar consumer markets.
A Rogue Valley Microdevices fab engineer inspects a wafer of MEMS chips designed by A.M. Fitzgerald using Soitec’s SOI.
Image: EE Times
Looking ahead then boils down to finding out what the university labs are incubating, Fitzgerald said. “By scanning through the top 500 papers in 2017, which we filtered for commercial viability, we can predict the technologies that will be worldwide game changers.”
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