Musical MEMS?

Written by: Stephen Whalley, Chief Strategy Officer, MEMS Industry Group

I had the pleasure of attending the 8th Annual Body Computing Conference on October 3rd 2014.  This was the second year I have attended, and once again it did not disappoint.  In one jam-packed day, this conference spearheaded by Dr. Leslie Saxon, Executive Director USC Center For Body Computing, brought together digital health rock stars of innovation from startups to the traditional establishments, investors, academics, athletes, and the general healthcare and technology supply chain.  While I could point out a number of interesting new devices, software, APPs and services that were announced at the conference, I’d like to give a brief mention of just one.

SingFit is a musical therapy mobile app.  It’s actually a bit of a stretch to mention it at all as it uses little to no MEMS technology.  I highlight it though as it won the Body Computing and Skullcandy SLAM contest.  The win highlights a growing trend in using music as a way to help patients comply with their therapies.  It is also fun and shows great results.  Rachel Francine and Andy Tubman developed and created the SingFit app to find new solutions for everything from autism and depression to chronic pain and Parkinson’s disease, by using the world’s oldest medicine, music, in a 21st century fashion. SingFit digitizes the evidence-based music therapy technique of lyric prompting, which enables practically everyone, including those with dementia, autism and traumatic brain injuries to sing on a regular basis in order to achieve therapeutic goals.  The videos that Andy showed at the event were truly inspiring.  They motivated me to think about what could be done if more MEMS and sensors were used in this way.

The Body Computing Conference topics and general industry landscape point to MEMS/sensors being front and center of the mobile health and handheld/wearable device discussion. During the conference, various speakers mentioned the current and future use and impact of MEMS/sensors throughout the day.

While there have been tremendous advancements in MEMS over the past two decades to meet the demanding needs of high-volume automotive and consumer electronics, we are still in our relative infancy when it comes to small form factor, low-power, low-cost mobile biosensors being applied in wellness and medical applications to deliver an easy-to-use consumer experience.  As one analyst and panel discussion pointed out, the future is not wearable…it’s invisible.  Is the MEMS/sensor industry capable of delivering on this future anytime soon?  When will implantable sensors, skin tattoo sensors and sensor-based clothing actually be a reality for the masses?  Lots more work to do here whether you believe it’s upon us already or will happen for the next generation.

The ‘more work to do’ aspect has got to involve closer cooperation between the healthcare industry and MEMS/sensor technologists.  While Dr. Saxon ‘s work and conference are a bright spot in bringing technological innovation into healthcare settings, and AliveCor is a notable success story here, we are just scratching the surface of the opportunity and the challenges still to come.

The good news is that many individuals, companies and industry bodies are coming together to discuss and debate the issues.  We need to move quickly to not just observe these challenges but to join and co-create the future of digital health.   MEMS Industry Group has formed a healthcare working group to focus on what we can do to better serve not only the needs of our members and industry but to see how we can better serve the needs of the healthcare industry and our co-creation partners there.  There will be a panel and topic table session on this at the upcoming MEMS Executive Congress US 2014, November 5-7, Scottsdale, AZ.  Come sing, dance and co-create with us!

Karen’s Blog – Pittsburgh IMAPS Workshop

Packaging means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Webster’s dictionary defines package as a “group or a number of things, boxed and offered as a unit.”

For my school-age daughters, packaging means figuring out how to maximize the components of their lunch into these bento-box-like containers I bought at Target in hopes that it would simplify their packaging and assembling process (at low cost and decent performance, mind you). Two months into the school year the packaging appears to be weathering extreme temperatures (cold fridge to hot dishwasher), drop-tests (I am sure you need no explanation here) and what I can only describe as a “cram test” (how many Oreos can you fit inside without the box breaking or my parents noticing).

But if you are in the microelectronics/MEMS industry, when you hear the word packaging your mind goes to the various MEMS packages that can contain a multitude of electrical and mechanical components that are inter-connected to the outside world for devices such as MEMS microphones, airbag accelerometers, gyros, RF MEMS and the list just goes on and on.

I had the pleasure to learn more about the challenges and opportunities affecting MEMS packaging at a recent International Microelectronics Assembly and Packaging Society (IMAPS) workshop held in my hometown of Pittsburgh and at my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Presenters included our host, Gary Fedder, CMU’s Director of the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems (ICES); Maarten de Boer, CMU Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering; Brett Diamond, MEMS Development Manager, Akustica; Erdinc Tatar, CMU Graduate Student; and yours truly.

To say that my presentation was different from the others is a gross understatement – I talked about the potential for MEMS and sensors in the expanding world of Internet of Things (IoT) as well as an overview of MEMS/sensors standardization and the proactive role that MEMS Industry Group (MIG) and my partners/members/colleagues are playing in addressing the remaining challenges to commercialization. You can access my presentation on the MIG resource library webpage (no password required).

As the others’ presentations are not posted (at least to my knowledge) I figure I’d give you a quick synopsis of what I learned and heard. Gary basically gave an overview about how amazing and fantastic CMU’s engineering, robotics and computer science departments are and that CMU is now partnering and working with universities and centers around the globe. Literally. They even have two programs going on in China.

Maarten’s presentation on the “Effect of Gas Environment and Materials on Electrical Contact Reliability in Micro- and Nanoswitches” was illuminating as I am somewhat familiar with the work that GE Global Research is doing on RF MEMS switches and am aware of the incredible market potential for this area (I wrote a featured blog on this topic for GE’s “Edison’s Desk” earlier this year). Maarten and his colleagues at CMU are taking this a bit further, by looking into different materials and applications at the nano scale.

Brett’s presentation on “Challenges in the Design, Manufacturing, and Usage of MEMS Microphones” was really impressive as it gave a very in-depth view of the true challenges of packaging a device that by design needs to be open to the environment. No small task and it was equally exciting to hear Brett hint at the future applications and integrations with their MEMS mic’s (I will not repeat them here at the risk of disclosing something I shouldn’t). But let’s just say that the market applications for MEMS microphones are just at the beginning – the potential is really big.

Erdinc’s presentation on “Environmental and Packaging Effects on High-Performance Gyroscopes” revealed why so many engineers love their work in the lab – as they are able to tinker and explore with new materials and processes. It’s another reason why I love my work in MEMS/sensors – because there is still an opportunity for “new science.”

MIG helped sponsor the event by providing snacks (including some great chocolate cookie/pie things that melted in my mouth) for the attendees to enjoy while attending the workshop and to facilitate networking. What I learned at the workshop confirmed what I suspected before – packaging is in the eye of the beholder – and at the end of the day what really matters is that the package is at a cost that is reflective of its application and performance expectations.  Therefore, it’s important to communicate those expectations from both the user and supplier’s perspectives.

Packaging means a lot of different things and if done well it can mean the difference between success and failure. Or in my daughters’ case, deciding on how many Oreos to fit into the package before it fails and Mom finds out.

To access Karen’s presentation, click here.