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Why MEMS matters


November/December 2011 Volume 4 Issue 6


Karen Lightman.tif

By Karen Lightman

MEMS Industry Group

(412) 390-1644

“Manufacturing matters,” as Bennett Harrison, my graduate advisor at Carnegie Mellon University, used to say. It was a main theme of The Deindustrialization of America, a book he co-authored with Barry Bluestone describing the demise of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Today, as I see it, “MEMS matters”—and not just in the U.S. MEMS manufacturing matters worldwide.

MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) matters because in these insecure economic times, the MEMS industry is a bright spot in manufacturing. MEMS is a $9 billion market, and thanks to increased adoption in consumer and mobile-device applications, the market analysis firm IHS iSuppli projects MEMS will experience double-digit growth annually through 2015, when sales are expected to reach $12.1 billion.

I have been ruminating on this topic a great deal recently because of my interest in the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The PCAST report on Advanced Manufacturing for the Office of Science and Technology Policy—a report to President Obama on “ensuring American leadership in advanced manufacturing”—was released by the White House in June 2011. That report and Jon Gertner’s Aug. 25, 2011, article in The New York Times, “Does America Need Manufacturing,” have helped focus my attention on why MEMS—and other advanced technologies—matter to America.

When I asked University of California at Berkeley professor and MEMS legend Al Pisano to tell me why MEMS manufacturing matters, he responded with a poem:

“Where manufacturing goes, so goes maintenance.

Where maintenance goes, so goes engineering.

Where engineering goes, so goes research/development.

Where research and development go, so goes education!”

Al offered this interpretation of the verse: “Manufacturing pulls maintenance workers to new locations. Maintenance, when practiced enough, starts to seed engineering at the new location. Engineering, when built up enough, pulls along R&D. And it’s the need for R&D that generates the need for education.” This applies to MEMS even more because the “ecosystem” supporting MEMS manufacturing is both diverse and global, and is gaining strength and economic power.

Stable ‘stool’ needed

I strongly believe that the success of advanced manufacturing in the U.S. is tightly aligned with the vitality of our education system. To rapidly grow advanced manufacturing in the U.S., we must connect the “three legs of the stool:” academia, government and business.

For the U.S. economy to grow vigorously, all three legs must be stable. Academia must produce smart, innovative engineers. An effective, supportive government must offer incentives that encourage long-term, sustainable economic growth and promote collaboration among stakeholders. Such an initiative was successfully undertaken in the 1980s, when the government and U.S.-based semiconductor manufacturers formed SEMATECH, a consortium focused on solving shared semiconductor manufacturing problems.

Such collaboration would generate jobs, wealth and help to ensure the nation’s economic security. We cannot have an economy based only on services. That is an unsustainable, lose-lose situation.

Jim Reed, vice president of North American sales for Okmetic, a Finnish wafer supplier, commented on the importance and consequences of investment in education relative to MEMS manufacturing. “It is very important to keep the manufacturing expertise for these specialized products with the companies developing the technology and continue to work with academic organizations to [promote] leading-edge research,” he said. “This education is needed not only for device development, but for the entire MEMS supply chain.

“If material development or packaging, for example, lags behind, the entire industry could be impacted,” he continued. “Industry groups and academic cross-collaborations are also important to a thriving manufacturing industry. They help to establish standards for non-proprietary portions of MEMS-based process flows and specifications. If the MEMS community can keep this in mind as business expands, the future will be bright for many years to come.”

In this difficult economy, where can we find a good model of this three-legged stool? Germany, for one.

Dr. Gary O’Brien, director of MEMS Advanced Design Group Corporate Research for Robert Bosch LLC,
Palo Alto, Calif., shared his thoughts on how Bosch invests in manufacturing (and in MEMS): “At Bosch in Germany, our young engineers and physicists work on their Ph.D.s at Bosch while
still affiliated with the university from which they previously engaged in academic courses. This is a very practical educational model, and the students’ Ph.D. topics are also directly in line with Bosch’s business goals
as a result.”

In other words, the students are focused on practical research for manufacturable, commercial products. At the Bosch Research and Technology Center in North America, the company follows a similar model, allying closely with Stanford University to ensure that it has a “steady pipeline of highly talented engineers interested in working at Bosch in North America.”

And guess what? Bosch is one of the leading MEMS manufacturers in the world. It understands that MEMS matters. µ


Karen Lightman is managing director of MEMS Industry Group, Pittsburgh. MIG is a trade association focused on advancing MEMS across global markets. MIG’s mission is to enable the exchange of non-proprietary information among members, provide access to reliable industry data that furthers the development of technology and promote greater commercial development and use of MEMS and MEMS-enabled devices. Telephone: (412) 390-1644. E-mail: