|FEATURE FOCUS: MICRO- AND NANOTECHNOLOGY|
As the latest report card shows, the microelectromechanical systems business falls short in many key areas. Can nanotechnology learn from the example?
by Roger H. Grace
The first manifestation of microelectromechanical systems was in 1954, when Charles Smith of Bell Laboratories published a paper in Physical Review that discussed his observations of the piezoresistive property of silicon. This property of the material to change its resistivity with applied mechanical stress came to form the basis of many MEMS sensors, especially pressure sensors. Thus, we can say that the MEMS industry is over 50 years old.
The semiconductor industry had its founding less than 10 years earlier by scientists from the same lab. Considering that today semiconductors outsell MEMS by 20 to 1, we must ask ourselves: Why has MEMS underperformed its semiconductor cousin? In other words, where are the problems?
A number of MEMS devices have been commercialized, beginning with the pressure sensor in 1990. Roger Grace Associates has conducted a study to determine the commercialization timetable of some of the more significant MEMS products that have been developed in the last 50 years. Based on our findings, we estimate that it takes approximately 25 years from discovery to full commercialization. We expect that, as people look to lessons learned from other commercialization efforts, they may reduce the timeline necessary to achieve full commercialization.
Ever more compact: Shrinking packages show the
downward size migration over time of accelerometers
from ST Microelectronics.
Another emerging engineering interest, nanotechnology, is already eating into the funds available for MEMS research. Like MEMS, it is aimed toward commercialization in areas ranging from materials to medicine. As a business, it has farther to go than MEMS. So the question is, what can the practitioners of nanotechnology learn from the example of MEMS technology?
To better understand the progress MEMS has made as an industry and to identify some of the obstacles that remain, we have developed what we call the commercialization report card. The first commercialization report card was issued in 1998 and has been updated yearly to reflect the changes in the MEMS industry that affect its performance.
The results of the study are provided in a report card format. The grade scale ranges from D to A. We grade 14 separate areas, but the ones we consider the most significant are discussed below.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT (GRADE: A-):
R&D spending for MEMS has remained relatively constant at a favorable grade since 1998, never dropping below A-. In earlier times, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded many activities focused on MEMS device development. Recent DARPA funding has included reliability of RF MEMS and packaging. The National Science Foundation continues to provide support to MEMS R&D in the form of Small Business Innovation Research grants for early phase design and development activities. A good indicator of funding is the number of graduate students graduating from MEMS-rich academic programs.
This number appears to be holding constant. There has been a great deal of “small R” and “large D” in the commercial sector. Funds appear to be directed to fine-tuning processes to increase yield. This is especially true in areas where large-volume MEMS products are being produced—for example, automotive and consumer applications that use accelerometers, gyros, and displays. There has been a significant increase in the R&D funding levels in emerging-technology countries, including India and China. Areas of expanded MEMS funding on the rise include energy harvesting. The explosion of interest in nanotechnology has diminished the funding levels of MEMS.
MARKETING (GRADE: C+):
Marketing grades have languished at the C level from the inception of the report in 1998. Efforts to date have been a technology push versus a market pull. Only recently, with the introduction of MEMS into consumer applications—such as the optical micromirror in Texas Instruments’ Digital Light Projector, and accelerometers by Analog Devices and ST Microelectronics in the Nintendo Wii game system—has MEMS been exposed to the mass market.
Most recently, MEMS has been introduced into portable electronic systems—MEMS accelerometers and gyros in GPS and mobile phones, microphones in portable computers and mobile phones, and gyros in digital cameras. There still exist several serious voids on the part of MEMS suppliers to understand customers’ needs and their products’ unique competitive advantages. Most companies attempt to sell their products on specifications and fall far behind semiconductor companies on marketing expertise.
The die of a MEMS gyro from Analog Devices.
Marketing of MEMS is quite challenging and expensive, since application sectors are diverse and fragmented, and require application engineers who are well informed about customers’ needs and requirements. Another major problem is that there is a serious lack of product differentiation among suppliers. Marketing communications resources tend to be inadequate. In my opinion, the best marketing efforts have been turned in by companies including Analog Devices and Freescale, who are major MEMS players. It’s interesting to note that these companies are also veterans of the semiconductor industry and perhaps MEMS has benefited from the cross-pollination. The study shows that European companies lag behind U.S. companies with respect to expertise in marketing.
MARKET RESEARCH (GRADE: B):
Market research for MEMS continues to be provided by a number of organizations worldwide (including ours). Markets are analyzed according to device types, such as accelerometers or gyros, and by market sector—automotive, military, and so on. In addition, specific market reports on “hot” application topics, including inertial rate sensors, are made available by multiple research groups.
Conducting accurate market research in the MEMS market is quite difficult since there are so many suppliers (most of them private companies). As such, sales volumes are not public information and typically are held in high confidentiality. As a result, market numbers from different organizations are prone to vary from report to report. As MEMS has become a larger business opportunity, traditional large semiconductor research firms are entering the field. While published reports by established organizations appear adequate to serve the industry’s need, the use of in-depth custom research is woefully inadequate. Marketing 101 states that, before one enters a market, one needs to know and understand the size of the market, the competition, a firm’s unique differentiated advantage, and most important, the unfulfilled customer need that the company will supply. Until MEMS companies acknowledge and embrace this valuable tool, they cannot expect to be truly successful in the marketplace.
DESIGN FOR MANUFACTURING AND TEST (GRADE: B):
DfM&T is one of the most important and critical success factors for MEMS commercialization. It is at the heart of determining the cost of manufacturing and the reliability of the produced part. Unlike the semiconductor industry, where the device package plays a minor role in the overall product solution, MEMS packages are often more important and almost always more expensive than the devices themselves.
A commonly accepted rule of thumb establishes MEMS packaging, assembly, and testing to be between 60 and 80 percent of the total solution cost. The reason for this is that many MEMS devices are subject to the rigors of harsh chemical media—as are, for example, sensors for automotive oil pressure—in which they must make their measurement. As such, the silicon die often needs protection, and a costly mechanical packaging solution must be used. In addition, since most MEMS are electromechanical in nature, their performance is affected by changes in temperature, especially when they are made of silicon and are mounted on a substrate that has a different thermal coefficient of expansion, which results in inducing stress into the chip.
Good vibes: The instrument for RedOctane’s Guitar Hero video game uses a three-axis MEMS accelerometer for controller tilt motion.
As one can see, the device and its mounting method must be considered as a system and properly modeled as such. An example is on page 28. In addition, many MEMS devices are interconnected with semiconductor devices, typically application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs. To achieve an optimum design, connectivity and functional partitioning strategies of the system must be considered.
For a MEMS device to be optimized for cost and reliability, issues of manufacturing and testing must be confronted at an early stage in the design of a device and follow concurrent engineering principles. Unfortunately, not many MEMS manufacturers have seen the light. Large-volume suppliers have typically accepted this approach to meet the price demands of the consumer marketplace. Companies including Bennington Microtechnology Center and Infotonics are resources available for MEMS developers to use to assist in the development of packaging and DfM&T process development.
ESTABLISHED INFRASTRUCTURE (GRADE: A-):
The most dramatic improvement of any grade, from C+ in 1998 to an A- in 2007, has been achieved in the MEMS established infrastructure area. We define “infrastructure” as the resources needed to support the design, development, and manufacture of MEMS. The main infrastructure elements are software tools, manufacturing and test equipment, and manufacturing facilities, a.k.a. foundries.
Numerous companies have a solid history of providing excellent design, analysis, and simulation tools to MEMS designers. Included in this are Coventor, Intellisense, and SoftMEMS. All of these providers have their own specialties.
Manufacturing and test equipment has come a long way from the retrofit days of semiconductor processing equipment. Today, a broad spectrum of equipment made specifically for MEMS is being offered by companies, including EVG, Jenoptic, and Suss MicroTec. These firms have done an excellent job in their Marketing 101 tasks and have developed equipment well suited to the requirements of the industry.
The major area of interest in infrastructure is in MEMS foundries. These organizations produce MEMS wafers from designs provided by their customers. Our research shows that there are more than 60 foundries worldwide, and there is an oversupply of services. Major players include Asia Pacific Microsystems, Colibrys, IMT, and Micralyne.
The newly adopted “fabless” or “fablite” MEMS business model was taken from the semiconductor industry. Most venture capitalists prefer to fund companies using this model, since their investment is in ideas and people instead of brick and mortar. The major drawback here is that each foundry has its unique set of processes and tools.
If development of the early design is conducted at a university, there’s a good chance it will be necessary to undertake process modifications or device design changes to effect a smooth transition to manufacturing. Also of note is the need to convert 4-inch and 6-inch wafer sizes to 8-inch in order to take advantage of the new technologies associated with 8-inch production equipment, as well as the lower cost per device resulting in using the larger format wafer. SVTC is an organization focused on providing this service. Here again, process and design changes may be needed, which could lead to additional cost and a time-to-market delay.
In summary, there is more infrastructure in place than is presently required for the successful commercialization of MEMS. It is critical that MEMS organizations fully understand their short-term and long-term manufacturing requirements early on in order to judiciously select the right manufacturing partners.
INDUSTRY ASSOCIATIONS (GRADE: B+):
A number of industry associations exist worldwide to support the commercialization of MEMS. Chief among them are the Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation, the MEMS Industry Group in the U.S., IVAM in Germany, and Nexus in the European Union. All of these organizations conduct numerous meetings yearly and provide a valuable forum for their members.
STANDARDS (GRADE: C):
The progress on standards for MEMS has been less than exciting. Fewer than 10 standards currently exist for MEMS, whereas in the semiconductor industry, more than 700 have been published by the Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International organization. The reason for the lack of standards is the absence of standard processing for MEMS. Many companies use their processing as product differentiators. I believe that many items associated with MEMS packaging, processing, and testing can have standards, and the creation of standards will have the effect of reducing part cost in the industry.
VENTURE CAPITAL ATTRACTION (GRADE: C):
Venture capital attraction continues to focus on MEMS companies that promise to be successful in the large-volume consumer and medical markets. The grade has migrated to C from its high point grade of A at the height of the high-tech bubble in 2001. Recent startups, including SiTime (system timing products) and Invensense (gyros for digital cameras), have received advanced Round B and C funding in 2007.
In and out of the box: A view of one of Freescale’s MMA73xxL family of accelerometers with the die removed from the packaging.
Venture capitalists are always seeking good investment opportunities characterized by good management, a large and growing market, and a great idea with defensible intellectual property. However, not many MEMS companies are able to prove that they can deliver a 10-fold return on invested capital in five years (the goal of the VC business). Recently, venture capitalists have begun to focus their interest in energy, green, and Web 2.0 opportunities, and have moved away from nanotechnology. New MEMS investments are taking the back burner, while earlier funded companies continue to be funded.
CLUSTER DEVELOPMENT (GRADE: B-):
Cluster development was added to the report card in 2003. The creation of clusters has proven to be a major catalyst in creating new MEMS companies. In his book, On Competition (published in 1998 by Harvard Business School Press), Michael E. Porter writes that clusters were created to increase the competitiveness of the organizations within the cluster. The first MEMS cluster was created in 1986 in Dortmund, Germany. Since then, more than 35 MEMS-specific clusters have been created worldwide. (There is a paper, “Technology clusters and their role in the development of the microsystems industry,” available on the Roger Grace Associates Web site, www.rgrace.com, originally presented at Coms 2003 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.)
There are successful clusters in Washington State; Hsinchu, Taiwan; Edmonton, Alberta, and Grenoble, France. MEMS clusters currently in the ramp-up stage are in Manaus, Brazil, and Paseo del Norte, Mexico. While existing clusters are tending to grow, and achieve their financial objectives, funding activity for MEMS has given way to the funding of nanotechnology clusters. Here, federal and local governments are making significant investments. Hopefully, some of the R&D undertaken in these nanotechnology clusters will have MEMS content or applicability.
Lessons and cautions
As MEMS has learned a great deal from the semiconductor industry, I submit that nanotechnology should learn from its bigger brother, MEMS. For those bringing radically new technology to market, I have four key cautions:
• Do not create technology for technology’s sake; understand the unfulfilled market need by undertaking formal and well-planned market research.
• Take care to understand competitive offerings and to create a product that is defensibly different.
• Do not fall prey and oversell the ability of nanotechnology to uniquely solve problems.
• Properly promote the product, especially its ability to uniquely solve the customers’ application problems.
It’s fortunate that nanotechnology manufacturing has been an area of significant funding from organizations that include the National Science Foundation. MEMS developers were not so fortunate in the field’s early days, and that lack of support contributed to the slowdown of the commercialization timetable.
At this point, it appears that nanotechnology has been a good student in many of the critical success factors given above. The challenge will be to continue to fund research for nanotechnology and to support development in the infrastructure area, including the advancement of manufacturing and metrology tools. Nanotechnology still will need venture capital money, which may prove especially challenging to raise in the current financial market conditions. As an industry, it will need to create standards and road maps to help guide the participants.
Package goods: A Tronics sensor requires protective packaging to shield the device from a harsh operating environment.
The MEMS report card has demonstrated a few significant advances in addressing the 14 critical success factors that are important in achieving successful commercialization. While a number of the grades have changed for better or worse, the overall grade remained at B-, as it was in 2006. Many grades still need major improvement, including those for marketing, standards, venture capital attraction wealth creation, profitability, and employment.
I encourage individuals interested in the commercialization of nanotechnology to become students of the evolution of both the semiconductor and MEMS industries. To quote the philosopher George Santayana in his book, The Life of Reason: “Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it.”
How we collected the information
Roger Grace Associates used a Delphi method to create the information that forms the basis of its commercialization report card.
The Delphi method uses interviews with a small number of experts (in this case, 55) in the field of MEMS taken from a broad range of applications and companies in the U.S. and in several countries of Asia and Europe. It’s important to note that the interview universe represents MEMS suppliers, MEMS users, and providers of MEMS infrastructure. As such, we attempted to closely represent the broad MEMS universe. The most recent study was largely conducted in April 2008, and was used as the basis of a presentation at Sensors Expo this past June. This article is adapted from the presentation.
An expanded version of the report card is published on www.rgrace.com/MEMSreportcard2007.
Roger H. Grace is president of Roger Grace Associates, a marketing consultant to the sensor and semiconductor industries based in Naples, Fla. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.