Printing MEMS devices at 100x less cost

December 22, 2015 // By Jean-Pierre Joosting
Manufacturing MEMS has traditionally required sophisticated semiconductor fabrication facilities, which cost tens of millions of dollars to build. Potentially useful MEMS have languished in development because they don't have markets large enough to justify the initial capital investment in production.

MEMS represented a $12 billion business in 2014, but is dominated by just a handful of devices, such as the accelerometers that reorient the screens of most smartphones.

Two recent papers from researchers at MIT's Microsystems Technologies Laboratories offer hope that that might change. In one, the researchers show that a MEMS-based gas sensor manufactured with a desktop device performs at least as well as commercial sensors built at conventional production facilities.

In the other paper, they show that the central component of the desktop fabrication device can itself be built with a 3-D printer. Together, the papers suggest that a widely used type of MEMS gas sensor could be produced at one-hundredth the cost with no loss of quality.

The researchers' fabrication device sidesteps many of the requirements that make conventional MEMS manufacture expensive. "The additive manufacturing we're doing is based on low temperature and no vacuum," says Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a principal research scientist in MIT's Microsystems Technology Laboratories and senior author on both papers. "The highest temperature we've used is probably 60 degrees Celsius. In a chip, you probably need to grow oxide, which grows at around 1,000 degrees Celsius. And in many cases the reactors require these high vacuums to prevent contamination. We also make the devices very quickly. The devices we reported are made in a matter of hours from beginning to end."