Monthly Archives: June 2009

Live from RoboCup 2009 Day 2

This week Richard Allen, Physicist, NIST, will be live blogging from RoboCup 2009 covering the MEMS-scale robot league.

June 29, 2009:

Today the teams arrived.  Remember that picture from yesterday.  Here is what the hall looks like today:


The Nanogram demonstration was assigned what is nearly ideal space.  We are immediately at the entrance of one of the two halls.  The first thing that everyone who enters this hall will see is our display.  Until we have activity, this is what they will see:


(Photo by Michael E. Newman, NIST)

We have had many of the participants from other teams and leagues stop by and look at our sign and at our “playing fields.”

I would like to finish today with a note that I don’t expect would surprise any frequent reader of the MIG blog:  Producing a MEMS device almost certainly requires overcoming a technical challenge.  Many, if not all of these challenges are faced by the researcher attempting to produce a MEMS-scale robot.  We had this fact brought home to us over the past week, as several of our teams decided not to come to Graz, because they had not overcome these challenges in a timely fashion and thus do not have functioning robots.

Perhaps we can collectively brainstorm ideas that might help more universities overcome the challenges and achieve working MEMS-scale robots.  I look forward to seeing your comments.

The views presented here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of NIST.

Please be respectful when posting comments. We will post all comments without editing as quickly as possible during business hours as long as the comments are on topic and do not contain profanity, personal attacks, or promote commercial products or services.

Live from RoboCup 2009

This week Richard Allen, Physicist, NIST, will be live blogging from RoboCup 2009 covering the MEMS-scale robot league.

June 28, 2009

Maybe I was a bit premature with the end of my last blog entry:

Let the games begin!

RoboCup 2009 is being held in the Stadthalle Graz, the convention center in Graz Austria.  The competitions will be held in two large halls, with stadium seating for many of the events.  There are hundreds of tables throughout the halls for the participants to use.  But the teams don’t show up until tomorrow.  For now, the center is set up and waiting.

Stadthalle Graz in preparation for RoboCup 2009

The lonely person in the foreground is Craig McGray, my co-worker at NIST; notice the person speeding through on a bicycle in the background.  I don’t think this will be possible tomorrow.

The views presented here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of NIST.

Please be respectful when posting comments. We will post all comments without editing as quickly as possible during business hours as long as the comments are on topic and do not contain profanity, personal attacks, or promote commercial products or services.

Live from RoboCup 2009

This week Richard Allen, Physicist, NIST, will be live blogging from RoboCup 2009 covering the MEMS-scale robot league.

June 27, 2009

First, I would like to introduce myself to those who don’t know me.  I am Richard Allen and I am a physicist in the Semiconductor Electronics Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland U.S.A.  I have been at NIST since 1990.  At NIST my research has been in metrology tools for MEMS (recently) and semiconductor devices.

As I write this, I am on a train, traveling from Vienna, Austria to Graz, Austria.  For the upcoming week, I will be blogging from RoboCup 2009 for MIG.  RoboCup is an international competition devoted to the goal of achieving a team of robotic soccer players who can compete with, and defeat, the human World Cup champions.  Although this goal seems like quite a reach, the target date is 2050.  Soccer was chosen as a means for advancing robotics and artificial intelligence as it is an exciting area, with well-known and well-defined rules and accomplishing this goal will meet many, if not all, of the outstanding technical challenges faced in robotics.

Now the question might arise as to why I am here this week and why MIG asked me to blog this competition:  About three years ago, Michael Gaitan, my co-worker from NIST, proposed to the RoboCup organizers that a MEMS-scale league be developed.  The key parameter defining these MEMS-scale robots are that the largest dimension must be no larger than 300 micrometers.  I will discuss the technical issues associated with these devices over the next few days and I suspect the reader will see many areas where the technical issues associated with making these robots work map to those challenges faced by MEMS device manufactures.

Let the games begin!

The views presented here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of NIST.

Please be respectful when posting comments. We will post all comments without editing as quickly as possible during business hours as long as the comments are on topic and do not contain profanity, personal attacks, or promote commercial products or services.

Is the electronic compass the next whiz-bang mobile device feature?

By St.J. Dixon-Warren and Rob Williamson, Chipworks, Inc.

With the new generation iPhone 3GS that was just announced, Apple is trying to stay ahead of the pack for smartphones. The new feature that captured our eyes is the electronic compass (also called a magnetometer.)  This is another example of a relatively simple technology being elegantly applied with a sophisticated software interface.

One of the leaders in the magnetometer space is MEMSIC, and while they did not win the iPhone socket (won by the AKM AK8973), they are a forerunners to get design wins as more electronics integrate this technology.

The target device discussed here is the Electronic Compass Board (ECB) evaluation module from MEMSIC (figure 1), and it contains both their novel thermal accelerometer and an electronic compass.

Figure 1: MEMSIC eval board

Figure 1: MEMSIC eval board

The creation of a MEMS magnet is almost a perfect example of elegant simplicity. Does anyone remember a book called, “101 Things a Boy Can Make” by author Arthur C Horth?  Somewhere, in the middle was a project for building an electromagnet using a screwdriver, some wire, and a battery. Many a young engineer did just such a project. Well, MEMSIC certainly didn’t build something quite that simple, but its engineers must have has a touch of nostalgia in taking a simple concept to a whole new level to meet the complex demands of hand-held devices.

One of these is the need to have it detect the earth’s magnetic field, regardless of what direction the device is being carried or used, since most consumers would not tolerate an application that forces them to hold the compass perfectly still and level. To achieve this MEMSIC has used three sensor chips, and simply ‘bent’ the circuit board to achieve the 3rd axis, as seen in figure 2. Despite this, the package is only 1.2mm thick.

Figure 2 – X-Ray of Magnetic Sensor

Figure 2 – X-Ray of Magnetic Sensor

Figure 2 – X-Ray of Magnetic Sensor

According to MEMSIC the magnetic sensors are anisotropic magnetoresistive (AMR) sensors.  They feature special resistors made of a permalloy thin film, which during manufacture are exposed to a strong magnetic field to orient the magnetic domains uni-directionally, establishing a magnetization vector.  An external field such as the earth’s makes the magnetization rotate, and this changes the film’s resistance.

The magnetoresistive sensors are arranged within a Wheatstone bridge circuit, so that the change in resistance is detected as a change in differential voltage, so that the strength of the applied magnetic field can be inferred.

A very strong external magnetic field could upset, or flip the polarity of the film, changing the sensor characteristics.  To allow for this a strong restoring magnetic field must be applied.  This is enabled on chip with a magnetically coupled strap.

A compass feature combined with inertial sensors promises to improve the dead reckoning capabilities of mobile devices, and reduce the energy drain caused by GPS.  It will be very interesting to see what new apps for the iPhone 3GS will appear, now that it will contain a true eCompass.

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From the floor of Transducers ’09 Day 4

Continuing coverage of Transducers 2009 from Paul Werbaneth, VP Marketing & Applications, Tegal Corporation.

Day 4: We’ve been making jokes this week about the stimulus money being flashed around now in MEMS, but, all joking aside, it does seem like the Research community is in a buying mood.  These approved budgets have surely been long in the making, nothing that could really be attributed to the quick-injection dollars handed out over the last six months, but no matter where the money’s coming from, it’s a positive and reassuring message.

Funded research for Science and Engineering — That’s great!  We’re still investing in the future.

If you go back to the model that it takes twenty-seven years in MEMS from concept to commercialization, then some of the cutting-edge research being launched now will just about make it to the market in my lifetime.  (I hope.)

Personally, I’m waiting for a personal attendant robot in my later years.  Maybe a really sharp Toyota PizMo, or one of those Honda ReadyMates.  (I’m afraid my robot’s not going to be coming from GM.)  It’ll have tactile sensors like I see in some of the Transducers posters today, it’ll have a full medical diagnostic kit, made by the BioMEMS folks, to let me know how I’m doing on my diet and with my exercise, it’ll have a big flexible display for news and entertainment, and it’ll be sitting there when idle harvesting energy from secret harmonies only robots hear, and maybe running on its microfuelcells when it’s up and ambling about.

Lease or own?  We have some attractive deals.

Walking near the Colorado Capitol last night, street people are out in force enjoying the warm evening (and probably ducking later due to sudden showers).  One guy is in preacher mode, holding a thick hardback book with a tattered but intact cover.  I look a little closer:  this isn’t a bible he’s holding, it’s a copy of The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectation, by Christopher Lasch, first published in 1979 (looks like an original copy).

Wow, heavy, I have to stop to talk.  “I’m an Air Force major,” says the preacher, a guy about my age.  I ask, “Have you read that book by Lasch?”  “Yes, it’s literature, and every word in it is even more true today than when first published.”  I agree it must be literature if the book is still being read these thirty years later, but that remark strikes the wrong tone for the major, and I start moving away.  “I’m an Air Force major!  I’m an Air Force major!  And you, you’re a journalist!”

He means that to be damning somehow.  (Is it?)

I think, “No, not a journalist.  Just a first-time blogger”

Now signing-off.

From the floor of Transducers 2009, thanks for reading.


From the floor of Transducers ’09 Day 3

Continuing coverage of Transducers 2009 from Paul Werbaneth, VP Marketing & Applications, Tegal Corporation.

Day 3 Morning: Ever heard of a carbon nanotube microforest?

Neither had I – it certainly isn’t anything we saw at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science the other day.

But Cliff Fung says a nanotube forest sprang to life for him in the talk he heard this morning during the 3D Technologies session he attended this third day of Transducers 2009.

Makes me think about nanobots roaming through a microforest glen, which is as amazing to imagine as it must have been for Leeuwenhoek to make the leap of comprehension he did when he observed, with his new microscopes 300 years ago, “an unbelievably great company of living animalcules, a-swimming more nimbly than any I had ever seen up to this time.”

I can’t completely recommend The Diamond Age, a novel by Neal Stephenson (the book gets a little freaky near the end), but large parts of the near-future world  Stephenson imagines do seem they will come to pass, given the sensor and actuator technologies being presented in Denver this week.

Silicon animalcules, nanotube forests, and all.

From the Floor of Transducers ’09 Day 2

Continuing coverage of Transducers 2009 from Paul Werbaneth, VP Marketing & Applications, Tegal Corporation.

Day 2 Afternoon: What’s Bill McClean from IC Insights been saying?  “Watch for the incremental improvements on the quarterly, or shorter, timescale to predict first signs of the upturn.”

Where is it equipment makers look for these signs?  Machine utilization rates and orders for tool consumables from systems in the field:  o-ring orders, replacement ceramic parts, new targets for PVD.

What did I hear today from a colleague in the PVD target business (typically three week lead times for target order to delivery, so a very leading indicator)?  “After November it got bad, but the target business is ticking back up.”

I’d like to think the dots connect…

If 80% of life is showing up then 75% of MEMS is DRIE, at least as I’ve heard repeated several times today – DRIE shows up everywhere.  It’s alive!

Day 2 Morning: … And a scary display case with objects (stuffed animals, birds, and the skeleton of some kind of tiny vampire/homunculus) that could have been collected by Charles Darwin during his famous voyage.  Remind you of The Museum of Jurassic Technology ( anyone?

Lots of talk throughout the day yesterday and into the evening about the long gestation times, from early development to full commercialization, for most MEMS products.  I hear twenty-seven years quoted as the average time-to-commercialization, which isn’t nearly a lifetime, but could certainly be most of a career.  Choose your racetrack:  RF MEMS, BioMEMS, Microfluidics, etc.; it seems to be similar for all.  Given the twenty-seven year average, we should be able to look backward from today to gauge which products will be rising stars over the next year or two.  Readers, thoughts?

The University of Michigan has stuffed a break-out room with abundant examples of their impressive work in multiple MEMS arenas.  I’m eager to learn more, which I hope to do at the dinner being hosted by Michigan tonight.

Professor Esashi (Tohoku University) and I run across each other in the exhibit area at 7:15am this morning, just long enough to say ohaiyou gozaimasu.  I’ll hope for more time talking with Esashi-sensei over the next couple of days – he looks busy.

From the floor of Transducers ’09 Day 1

Paul Werbaneth, VP Marketing & Applications, Tegal, is hitting the floor of the Transducers 2009 conference in Denver all this week and will be blogging his experiences. Stay tuned throughout the week as Paul sends more updates.

Day 1 Afternoon: I see Gary Fedder’s still in the spirit of things this afternoon, walking around wearing a Black Bart kind of hat.  With the poster session open there’s steady traffic through the exhibit area, and I make a connection with MIG activities for a couple of attendees from the Northeast.  People are saying, “Why are you at Transducers when you don’t actively make MEMS?” and we say we’re here because Transducers is a bridge between what the younger students are showing in the papers and posters they have up and what we want to put in our commercial products.  I invite my visitors to MEMS Executive Congress 2009, and promise that even though MEC is in Sonoma it’ll look like work because our social event is hiking up Sonoma Mountain.  In the rain, most likely.

They say they’ll take a look.

Off to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science tonight for a social program that includes Egyptian Mummies, North American Indian Culture, Dinosaurs, and …

Day 1 Morning: I take the elevator down to the opening reception; it’s 6:00pm, the bar’s been open for an hour, and the sound of a great party is heard even before the elevator doors open.  Many attendees in Western spirit, meaning clothes, hats, and badges, the last of which are worn by Transducers volunteers Joe Brown, Roger Grace, and Kurt Petersen.  A ten-gallon-hats-off to these tres hombres and their enthusiastic promotional activities on behalf of Transducers 2009.  It worked!

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said “There are no second acts in American lives,” but apparently there are second acts in the lives of Tegal tools.  Ran into some colleagues from Japan last night doing MEMS-based ESD protection devices. Turns out they also have energy harvesting programs going with PZT films, and that the same Tegal etch tool that had been used in FRAM development all those years ago is now finding a second act, in piezoelectric MEMS.

I count at least four ways to accessorize with the bright yellow Transducers 2009 bandanas I see everywhere at the party.  What a great giveaway.

It can be a little cool between competitors in the device and equipment businesses, but there is a large, warm, mixed group of Cal – Cornell – Penn – MIT members comparing notes on topics like AlN, Women in MEMS, moving to Cambridge, and the weather in Ithaca.  I know all of us on the business side have been watching travel budgets this year, but just a sample of the dynamic energy radiating from this party makes it clear there’s nothing like being here in person.  Wasn’t it Woody Allen who said “80% of life is just showing up?”

From San Francisco to Denver: A surprise of fresh snow high on the summer peaks in basin-and-range territory Nevada. Reading Wallace Stegner short stories on the plane, Stegner a Western author, but Stegner’s West arcs from Salt Lake to Montana, up to the Canadian border, and then out to Almaden and Los Gatos, CA, by coming down through the Pacific Northwest.  Denver goes missing.  Which writers then for here?  Willa Cather (The Song Of The Lark) captures some of Colorado, but I decide it’s really got to be Kerouac. His West ends in either Big Sur or North Beach, having started somewhere in the Denver train yards, hopping a freight while the bulls weren’t looking.

Gritty ride in from the freeway to the Sheraton, and maybe that is Dean Moriarty’s father looking out from the peeling casement window in one of the railroad flop houses I see before reaching the hotel.  My Super Shuttle companion is here for Transducers 2009 too; he’s into microfluidics.  “What’s interesting in microfluidics these days?” I ask.  “It’s hard to make money” is the reply.

A lot of that seems to be going around.  “Business has been like a faucet, running wide-open and then suddenly turned-off,” says another voice from the floor.

“Belly-up to the bar” cocktail hour tonight may help. More later.


MEMS Standards

Written by Mike Mignardi, Manager, Energy Harvesting, Texas Instruments

In the movie “A League of Their Own,” Jimmy Dugan, played by Tom Hanks, yells at Evelyn Gardner, played by Bitty Schram, for making an error and says “There’s no crying in baseball!” I can generate a similar quote for those involved in MEMS – “There’s no whining in MEMS.” I can’t tell you how many MEMS conferences/workshops I’ve been to where folks complain about the lack of standards in the MEMS industry. Now, don’t get me wrong, I see a strong value is having standards for a particular technology or industry. Standards are very valuable in helping to alleviate many concerns in the area of reliability and product performance. It’s just that having a MEMS standard that covers all MEMS devices seems very complex if not impossible or impractical.

At this year’s MIG METRIC workshop a great comment was made that “80% of your problems have been solved by another industry.” Since MEMS covers such a diverse area of technology and industry, this is definitely true. Many involved in MEMS are finding other industries to help solve their problems, fabricate their devices, and utilize their standards. For those utilizing the semiconductor (SC) industry for their fabrication, they can take advantage of the plethora of SC standards. For those using another industry or creating a new process, they will utilize that industry’s standards or create their own set of standards.

Now, I must admit, that within the last 2-3 years, I hear less whining about MEMS standards. I am all about borrowing or stealing (not real stealing) whenever or wherever I can. If a standard exists for something being used by a unique MEMS process, package, material, test, etc., then by all means use it. Using standards by other industries will certainly help in demonstrating the reliability and performance of your product to your customer. For instance, a MEMS device fabricated in an SC fab leverages the tool sets and processes are already used to fabricate high volume and highly reliable ICs (integrated circuits). And, if you are utilizing an immature process, package, material or test – over time these items will become mature and new standards will be generated. I’m sure this was the case when LCD manufacturers started making display panels. Likewise, NIST is working hard on MEMS standards in areas that make sense.

So recognize that we will likely not have a single “one size fits all” set of MEMS standards to fit the many diverse types of devices, technologies and processes. But as the industry matures and develops niche standard, you’ll likely hear much less whining in the world – which will make me a happy conference attendee.

If I do have to whine, it’s about those who make the ‘S’ in MEMS lower case and folks who don’t use their turn signals when driving – but, that’s a whole other topic to discuss for my next blog.


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