Microwaves & RF chats with Matt Apanius about the Richard Desich SMART Center's focus on back end-of-line processes.
NF: The Desich SMART Center is a microsystems packaging lab focusing on commercialization. Which part of the design process does it target?
MA: We are focused on back end-of-line processes—processes that will become a development bottleneck for commercialization if not addressed properly. The package interface determines how well the device will perform in the environment of its intended application. By providing package, assembly, and testing processes and expertise, the Desich SMART Center assists customers in overcoming these challenges earlier in the product-development process—ideally, before finalizing the design.
NF: The center contains about $5 million of equipment that would normally be found on a manufacturing floor. Please describe the equipment and capabilities offered by the center.
MA: We have established a great starting point with the current round of equipment investments by carefully balancing the needs for flexibility and manufacturability. The capabilities include back-end wafer processing, package assembly, performance testing, accelerated reliability testing, and package design. Development work done at the Desich SMART Center can seamlessly transition into manufacturing, whether the customer chooses to use a semiconductor assembly and test house or bring it in-house to do the manufacturing themselves.
NF: A new facility is currently being built in addition to the existing one. What capabilities and equipment will it offer?
MA: Since September 2011, we have been running projects out of an 1800-sq.-ft, class 10,000 cleanroom. The new 47,000-sq.-ft facility will be opening in spring 2013. It will have class 100 and class 1000 cleanrooms, expanding the library of existing process modules. The new process modules will include additional advanced packaging techniques and new wafer-level packaging processes.
NF: For a small company looking to develop microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) devices, the Desich SMART Center can help them compete with larger companies in terms of available resources. How do those firms go about partnering with the center?
MA: As a development foundry, the Desich SMART Center offers access and services to companies that do not have the resources for the capital-intensive infrastructure required for MEMS packaging, assembly, and testing. Fabless companies have emerged over the years and have been successful in bringing new products to the market. Relying on outsourced manufacturers for development is challenging because it is disruptive to the manufacturer’s operations. In addition, the management of intellectual property can be complicated. The Desich SMART Center’s engagement model offers full access to capabilities required for back-end-of-line process development. At the same time, it protects the customer’s intellectual property and, with partnerships, assists with the transfer to manufacturing.
NF: How does the center solve the issues that designers are having with current approaches?
MA: The semiconductor supply chain is fragmented and the manufacturing models are driven by high volumes. These two characteristics can make it very difficult for a company interested in developing and launching a new MEMS product. In this case, additional resources are necessary to either manage the suppliers or build a prototype lab. This ultimately detracts from what the company is trying to accomplish—creating a new product.
The Desich SMART Center offers MEMS packaging and testing services in one location, reducing project costs and accelerating time to market. For example, a customer can have their device packaged, performance tested, and evaluated for reliability—all at the Desich SMART Center. Therefore, the customer can very quickly understand how the device performs within the constraints of a given package design and its manufacturing process.
NF: Can you share with us some examples of projects that have been completed with the center’s help?
MA: Absolutely. We’ve supported the development of a low-temperature wafer-bond process for capping a MEMS micro valve. We have developed a package assembly process for a customer that is developing high-temperature integrated circuits (ICs). And we currently provide them with on-demand prototypes for their customers. We’ve also developed manufacturing specifications for several customers that have unique assembly processes for micro-actuators and sensors. In addition, we conduct third-party calibration and testing for MEMS devices.
NF: Do you feel that the center’s location (15 miles outside of Cleveland in Elyria, OH) hampers its success at all?
MA: Not at all. In many ways, the location is ideal. Ohio is the third-largest manufacturing state in the US next to California and Texas. Many of our early customers have been regional companies that already manufacture products. They are looking for ways to leverage MEMS and sensors to differentiate their products from their competitors. We also have the benefit of being close to universities that are conducting world-class research in MEMS and microelectronics, advanced materials, and advanced manufacturing. They include Case Western Reserve University, the University of Akron, Carnegie Mellon University, the Ohio State University, and the University of Michigan.
NF: The Desich Smart Commercialization Center for Microsystems is a very unique model in that it has a relationship with a community college. Please describe that relationship and how the center came into being.
MA: The Desich SMART Center was launched in partnership with Lorain County Community College (also located in Elyria). As an institution of higher learning, the college has made great strides in rejuvenating a community that has suffered through a severe economic downturn. In serving its mission, the college has made significant commitments to resources that support the development of technology and new products. These include a technology business incubator called GLIDE, a pre-seed funding opportunity for technology startups known as the Innovation Fund, and now a technology facility that leverages capital equipment assets for MEMS and sensor technology development—the Desich SMART Center.
NF: Do you see a chance for the US to reinvigorate its manufacturing efforts with semiconductor development? How does the SMART Center contribute to these efforts?
MA: The opportunity for US manufacturing and MEMS can be realized with low- to mid-range-volume, high-performance products. For MEMS applications, the package is part of the system design. A robust system design delivers maximum performance. The Desich SMART Center is well-positioned to help companies quickly develop their products so that they can get them to market. I would like to think that we can have a positive impact on US manufacturing. There is no way to predict the magnitude of the potential. But at a minimum, we are taking a step in the right direction.