What is the MEMS supply chain as we know it going to do, device makers and equipment suppliers both, if paper becomes the next MEMS/sensor substrate?

And why are we interested?

NASA TRL ScaleDr. Alissa M. Fitzgerald, A.M. Fitzgerald & Associates, gave what was probably the single most talked-about presentation at the recent MEMS Executive Congress in Napa, CA. In “Emerging MEMS & Sensor Technologies to Watch,” Dr. Fitzgerald listed, in order of maturity, most to least, these selected examples: navigation-grade gyros; zero quiescent power devices; GaN resonators; graphene FET gas sensors; biodegradable sensors; flexible energy harvesters; and paper-based devices.

On the NASA Technology Readiness Level Scale, which ranges from 9 (”Flight Proven”) to 1 (“Basic Principles Observed and Reported”), the MEMS & Sensors on Alissa’s watch list share these identifying characteristics: they are pre-commercial (TRL 1-4); they live in universities and/or research labs; they exist as proof-of-concept devices whose best market application(s) are still unknown; and they are still 5-10 years and $10-100M further investment away from full commercialization.

And why do we care?

Because that’s only where the next $1B MEMS & Sensors products are going to come from, that’s why.

Live here, the blockbusters of 2020 and beyond.

But those next trillion sensors may very likely not all be made on silicon … there’s excellent reason to think many of them will be made on paper.

Imagine there’s no cleanroom (it’s easy if you try). Imagine large format substrates, imagine very high capital equipment throughputs, and imagine ULTRA LOW COSTS … and there you have the compelling arguments for paper MEMS identified by Dr. Fitzgerald.

151104 AMFitzgerald MIG MECUSA Emerging Technologies_Substrates

I think Francoise von Trapp speaks for us all with her response: “Seriously? A trillion sensors made of… paper?”

According to Dr. Fitzgerald, “Paper – as a silicon expert this opportunity both excites and terrifies me.”

What are the MEMS equipment suppliers (and the MEMS industry-as-we-know-it that relies on them) going to do if paper is the next sensor substrate?

Enter through the looking glass with me to another realm, one where the supply chain is well-established and robust, if possibly separated from silicon MEMS & sensors’ domain by the share of a common language.

Enter through the mirror to the realm of IDTechExPrinted Electronics 2015, recently touched down at the Santa Clara Convention Center, in the Valley of Silicon.

“’It seems very pretty,’ she [Alice of Wonderland and Looking Glass fame] said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!’”

Looking Glass Chess BoardAbout the familiar, silicon MEMS-centric visitors to the IDTechEx Printed Electronics USA 2015 exhibition could be comforted by the presence of such sponsors and exhibitors as Qualcomm, IBM, ULVAC, BSAC, Fraunhofer, FUJIFILM Dimatix, Holst Centre, IDT, Silex, and VTT.

A little further afield, but still recognizable from III-V and PV: Aixtron (MOCVD applications for compound, silicon, or organic semiconductors); also Meyer Burger and Von ARDENNE (both known well for thin film processing applications in silicon photovoltaics). And there were the materials suppliers the silicon world knows – DuPont, Henkel, Hitachi Chemical, MicroChem, SAES Getters.

But this is not your silicon Applied Materials on this side of the looking glass, with their paper on “High Volume R2R and S2S Manufacturing Technologies for Flexible Electronics,” (Dr. Robert J. Visser), or maybe not your silicon H-P (“Printing the Future – Building the Trillion Sensor Network One Droplet at a Time,” James Stasiak).

(Although it might be what you expect from Dai Nippon Printing – “Printed Electronics at Dai Nippon Printing,” Dr. Hiroki Maeda.)

And these examples only begin to hint at the bench depth in the flexible electronics supply chain.

How about having an RR Donnelley in your looking glass world? “For more than 150 years, RR Donnelly has helped companies communicate and manage information by providing innovative solutions. Our proprietary Printed Electronics platform continues that innovation by delivering new, functional products via thin flexible printed circuits, RFID, and more.”

Through the Looking Glass CoverRR Donnelley prints books, business forms, catalogs, directories, labels, magazines, and more.

And they do it at scale. On paper. Been doing it for 150 years.

“’Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’ ‘—but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’ ‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’”

“‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.”

We would be a poor sort of industry, MEMS & Sensors, if we were to work only backwards, forever seeing silicon in our mirror.

We need to work both ways. Terrified, but excited.

Could it be that we should be “starting all over again on plastic?” as ARM is doing? Or starting all over again on paper?

“’It’s [2µm design rule SoC built around an ARM Cortex M0] pretty slow, it’s nMOS, we haven’t got to CMOS yet, so its power dissipation is not the best, but it’s about the thickness of cling film.’” Mike Muller, ARM CTO, hinting in an EETimes piece that such designs, built on sheets of plastic, could be used to run very low power IoT applications in future.

I visited the Intel Museum in Santa Clara yesterday, over there for other business reasons, but happy to spend time reliving some of my early days making slow (by today’s standards), power-dissipating (ibid) Intel 8088 microprocessors on 4” silicon wafers with 3µm design rules and something like 29,000 transistors total – about the same neighborhood as the plastic ARM device.

That Intel microprocessor launched the desktop computing revolution.

Where will plastic/paper take us?Alice-03

From Santa Clara, CA, thanks for reading.

And thank you also Lewis Carroll – you continue to amaze and amuse. Thank you too Sir John Tenniel. Your illustrations are timeless.



Paul Werbaneth

Paul Werbaneth is a long-time Contributing Editor at 3D InCites. Since entering the semiconductor industry…

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