What does it mean to enable a MEMS design? Is it enough to have silicon wafers, a clean room and some tools? What bridges the idea to product?
Traditionally it has meant a series of trials based on past experiences on conceiving of a process flow which results in the final desired structure. What steps are possible? What materials can be used? How will it react to the process and how will it perform after all processing is done? All of these questions need to be understood simultaneously. Being able to do this consistently over many different projects is how Silex helps the most innovative MEMS companies get their ideas to high volume manufacturing.
But in markets where MEMS is becoming mainstream, where acceptance of MEMS technologies is encouraging traditional and non-traditional customers alike to consider their own MEMS programs, is this enough to enable the rapid growth of MEMS going forward? Is every MEMS device trapped in a paradigm of custom process development and new materials development? Does everything require MEMS PhD expertise to engineer a perfect solution? In a market where customers are looking for customized MEMS devices AND rapid time to market, can they have both?
The core of MEMS still lies in the custom process integration and the universe of MEMS devices is still expanding, pushed by the dark energy of innovation. Our SmartBlock™ approach to process integration is why we can execute on these challenges in a consistent and high quality way. But it still takes the time and effort of customized processes to achieve full production qualification, so we also believe that another model is possible, and we are beginning to see it emerge.
Process integration into a foundry environment is something we also call Design Enablement, because a successful MEMS process enables designs to be turned into an actual product. But the power of design enablement is somewhat muted if the echo only rings once. The true power of Design Enablement is when the process can resonate over many products or many redesigns of the same product. This would break the “one product, one process” paradigm and is what we believe is the next phase in the MEMS industry.
Alissa Fitzgerald of AMFitzgerald & Associates had a dilemma and an idea. To her, the normal route for MEMS development was difficult from the start: begin with an idea and use a university or research lab to get a prototype out. Once it is successful, contact a production MEMS foundry to manufacture it – only to find out that there are still months or years of process qualification ahead. What if she could collaborate with a foundry from the start and define a product design platform and a process flow simultaneously? Using known process capabilities of an existing foundry, build and characterize the product to that process, so that both the processing window and the product spec windows are defined simultaneously. Then you have a process platform that is solid, “de-risked,” and ready to take customers to market quickly.
This is the idea behind the AMFitzgerald RocketMEMS program and Silex’s support and partnership in the initiative. And it results in something which is not fully customized for each new product, yet is not completely and rigidly fixed either. Rather, it is a “Near Product Platform” made possible by the design enablement of the Silex process integration approach and AMFitzgerald’s product design framework and methodology. It allows for product specific variability without breaking the mold out of which the process was cast.
And it works.