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MEMS: Unloved?

Karen has been feeling unloved.

That would be Karen Lightman, managing director of the MEMS Industry Group. After several years of MEMS taking a share of the attention at Semicon West, she noted a distinct “There’s a new kid in town” feeling this year in her blog, and this turned out to be a very well-attended blog post.

So as a follow-up, she arranged a webcast for last week that featured Peter Himes of Silex, a MEMS foundry, Mike Rosa of Applied Materials, and yours truly. While my role was more to provide an outside view of why we at Techfocus Media like MEMS (and noting that such gushing is actually pretty unusual for me since I often feel more at home as the curmudgeon in the corner), Peter and Mike focused more on the internal details of the industry.

The question gets to the relationship between the MEMS industry and the IC industry. It’s been noted that the downturn might have boosted MEMS by giving fabs another way to fill their lines while chip sales were slow. The question is, when the economy ramps back up, will that put MEMS back out in the cold? Are IC makers no longer interested in MEMS? (This is, of course, a highly simplified synopsis of the question.)

The thing that took the spotlight at Semicon West was 450-mm (roughly 18”) wafers. And wafers (at least unpatterned ones – and no one has been patterning 18” wafers yet) are shiny. And everyone loves something new and shiny. But MEMS doesn’t need – couldn’t come close to justifying – 18” wafers. Some say the physics won’t even permit it (these are mechanical systems, after all – stresses across such a huge wafer matter).

While the question was somewhat limited in scope, my take on it was that it went to the whole existential justification of MEMS. After all, if a key part of the supply chain – the foundry – goes away, well, you don’t have MEMS devices. So while the question wasn’t, “will MEMS go away?” it seemed to me that, following the thread of logic, that’s where you end up. Which is why I focused my energy on the fact that I don’t think MEMS is going anywhere. People expect the things that are possible due only to MEMS, and this could not go away quietly. And we all agreed on that.

All of these issues were addressed during the webcast, but there was one other thought that came to mind that we didn’t get to. And that’s the question of whether everyone is going to run headlong to 18” wafers, which would also leave MEMS looking for a dance partner. But these wafers are only for super-high-volume super-low-cost devices – and even having said that, the future of 450-mm blanks is not foreordained.

When I discussed the topic with KLA-Tencor some months back, I got the sense that a) everyone was excited about jumping into the 450-mm pool, but b) everyone was standing on the edge of that pool waiting for someone else to jump in first. And when KLA-Tencor jumped in with their blank wafer inspection tool (the first necessary step before going any further in the production chain), they even hedged their bets by providing two docks: one for 300-mm wafers and one for 450-mm wafers. That way a company wouldn’t have to justify the purchase based solely on 450-mm wafer demand.

The number of people that had signed up for the webcast indicates, however, that these questions caught people’s attention. So hopefully, minds have been eased following the discussion.

Karen certainly seemed happier.

You can watch a rerun of the webinar here. (With apologies for my being over-optimistic about the current ability of the internet to handle PowerPoint animations…)

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