MEMS: Small Things Building a Bigger World

by Russell Real / May 11, 2021

Unnoticed by many of us, microscopic machines are powering the tools we use every day, from sensors that perceive and interpret the world around us to navigation and communication systems. Technologies we take for granted, like GPS navigation, which leverages radio receivers, are often augmented by inertial navigation systems (INS) made up of gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers, and barometers.

These specialized sensors allow devices of all shapes and sizes to determine where they are, how they're oriented, and how they move in space. These tiny and impactful solutions are known as micro-electro-mechanical systems, or MEMS for short, otherwise called microsystem technologies.

How MEMS Work

MEMS are miniaturized structures and devices built to achieve a specific function using mechanical means. While many MEMS are fabricated and packaged using batch process techniques similar to integrated circuits, the critical distinction is that they have moving or dynamic parts that interact with their surroundings. These systems are designed to have the ability to sense, respond to, and influence their environment. As part of a complete system, they can have meaningful effects. Different MEMS designs are used when precision, low-power operation, and compact form factors are needed.

Where are MEMS Used

MEMS are deployed in many applications that involve sensing, detecting, transducing, actuating, and other physical techniques that require performance and precision in a small footprint. They can be found in technologies across many markets, including industrial, medical, communications, aerospace, and defense. Their physical dimensions can vary from a few microns up to several millimeters.

Here are a few examples of MEMS applications:

  • microvalves for the control of gas or liquid flow, such as in lab-on-chip diagnostics
  • optical switches and mirrors to redirect or modulate light beams, such as in imaging systems
  • independently controlled micromirror arrays for displays
  • microresonators used for confining light, such as in spectrometers or other optical sensors
  • micropumps to develop positive fluid pressures, such as in medical infusion pumps
  • micro flaps to modulate airstreams on airfoils on airplanes

MEMS applications can employ different fundamental techniques, including piezoresistive, piezoelectric, microfluidic, light modulation, thermal expansion, or other methods to respond to the system's inputs.

Because MEMS design involves electronics, mechanics, and optics, the engineering and manufacturing of these technologies are highly interdisciplinary and apply diverse expertise. Designing a device using MEMS techniques demands working knowledge in electrical and mechanical engineering, material science, chemistry, fluidics, optics, and radiofrequency design, in addition to electronics fabrication and assembly processes. Now that MEMS are being employed on a commercial scale, these devices need to be produced reliably at volume.

What Does the Future Hold for MEMS

Continuing innovation in MEMS techniques leads to disruptive technologies in many markets, from lidar systems enabling autonomous vehicles and perceptive robotics, to steerable beamforming phased arrays in next-gen communications antennas and in chip-scale atomic clocks for communications, navigation, finance, and cloud computing. Leading experts in engineering and research fields are blazing the trail with new and sophisticated approaches that can potentially change the way we live our daily lives. However, the most important thing to understand about designing with MEMS technology is that each of these integrated systems is just one piece of a more extensive, functional system. Without broad systems-level design expertise, genius can only take you so far in trying to bring a product to market.

So how does this technology get out of the lab and into the factory? For many OEMs, this means finding an engineering and manufacturing partner like Benchmark. Our seasoned engineers have wide-ranging expertise and broad industry knowledge to work with MEMS technology and integrate it into a manufacturable product.

About Benchmark

Benchmark is ideally suited to produce high complexity products at scale with in-house microelectronics, high-density circuit design, test development, and process automation design capabilities. Our global manufacturing sites leverage best-in-class practices and systems, ensuring that the highly-precise manufacturing processes are implemented in-line with printed circuit board assembly, system build, and test.

Benchmark is the partner of choice for some of the leading technology companies today. Interested in learning more about how Benchmark is enabling MEMS? Check out our miniaturization and micro-electronics capabilities.

Ready to find out how Benchmark can help to bring your technology to market? Contact us today.

Miniaturization Microelectronics

about the author

Russell Real

Russell Real is a Technical Project Manager for Benchmark's North American design engineering team, where he manages cross-functional teams to deliver design and products to our customers. Russell has extensive experience in automation, medical product development, and semiconductor equipment. Russell has been with Benchmark for over 25 years. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois as well as a Masters in Manufacturing System Engineering from the University of Wisconsin. Russell enjoys home brewing and especially sharing it with friends and family.

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