Customized chip-based MEMS

3D printing can now manufacture customized sensors for robots, pacemakers, and more.

A MEMS unit is seen beside a 2 cent Euro coin.
A MEMS unit is seen beside a 2 cent Euro coin.

A breakthrough in 3D printing could cost-effectively produce customized electronic machines the size of insects – a potential game-changer for manufacturing customized chip-based microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). These mini machines are mass-produced in large volumes for hundreds of electronic products, including smartphones and cars, where they provide positioning accuracy. But for more specialized manufacturing of sensors in smaller volumes, such as accelerometers for aircraft and vibration sensors for industrial machinery, MEMS technologies demand costly customization.

Frank Niklaus, who led the research at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, says the new 3D printing technique, published in Nature Microsystems & Nanoengineering, provides a way to get around the limitations of conventional MEMS manufacturing.

“The costs of manufacturing process development and device design optimizations don’t scale down for lower production volumes,” Niklaus says.

Engineers are faced with a choice of suboptimal off-the-shelf MEMS devices or economically unviable start-up costs.

Other low-volume products that could benefit from the technique include motion and vibration control units for robots and industrial tools, as well as wind turbines.

Robotics is one area which could benefit from a new 3D-printing method for producing custom microsensors.

The researchers built on a process called two-photon polymerization, which can produce high-resolution objects as small as a few hundred nanometers in size, but not capable of sensing. To form the transducing elements, the method uses a technique called shadow-masking, which works somewhat like a stencil. On the 3D-printed structure they fabricate features with a T-shaped cross-section that work like umbrellas. They then deposit metal from above, keeping the sides of the T-shaped features from being coated with the metal. This electrically isolates the metal on the top of the T from the rest of the structure.

With this method, Niklaus says it takes only a few hours to manufacture a dozen custom-designed MEMS accelerometers using relatively inexpensive commercial manufacturing tools. The method can be used for prototyping MEMS devices and manufacturing small- and medium-sized batches of a few thousand to tens of thousands MEMS sensors per year in an economically viable way, he says.

“This hasn’t been possible until now, because the start-up costs for manufacturing a MEMS product using conventional semiconductor technology can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and the lead times are several months or more,” Niklaus says. “The new capabilities offered by 3D-printed MEMS could result in a new paradigm in MEMS and sensor manufacturing.

“Scalability isn’t just an advantage in MEMS production, it’s a necessity. This method would enable fabrication of many kinds of new, customized devices.”

KTH, Royal Institute of Technology

December 2022
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