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Amalga™: an Next generation MEMS manufacturing technology for miniature RF Components

Mechanical-Systems (MEMS) is the integration of mechanical elements (levers, springs, deformable membranes, vibrating structures, etc.), sensors, actuators, and electronics (resistors, capacitors, inductors, etc.) on a common silicon substrate through microfabrication technology. MEMS devices are today considered as one among the most promising technologies of this century, capable to revolutionize the industrial world and the commercial product market. Micro-Electro- MEMS can be considered as “intelligent” systems which combine mechanical and electronic functions in extremely reduced dimension. The dimension of a MEMS device is in the order of the microns and it is manufactured directly on a silicon wafer.


The emerging billions of  Internet of Things will need to connect billions of devices deployed in the physical world (the so-called “edge” of IoT) to the cloud, bringing real-world data and analytics to operations. These sensors ideally need to be small, smart, zero-power and cost-effective…a challenge with current solutions. The increasing popularity of IoT in semiconductors, increasing demand for smart consumer electronics and wearable devices, and growing adoption of automation in industries and homes are some of the significant factors influencing the growth of MEMS market while the highly complex manufacturing process and demanding cycle time, and lack of standardized fabrication process for MEMS is expected to hinder the growth of market.


Conventional MEMs manufacturing is an additive layer-by-layer approach which is monolithic and limits the materials and processes available among other difficulties. “MEMS manufacturers have miniaturized less than eight percent of an industrial component market that is over $200 billion in size,” clarifies Dhillon. “Material and process limitations of the semiconductor manufacturing process make these components hard to shrink.” The layers are very thin so even small piece of dust make the relay fail hence there is challenge of reliabiity.


“Over the decades, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested into MEMS companies. With limited success, ‘MEMS’ can be a scary word, as the number of successful MEMS products to date can be counted on two hands,” said Dhillon. “Although we make microelectromechanical systems, we do not build them the same way and thus do not possess the same challenges traditional MEMS companies face. It is one of the reasons we emphasize that we are systems beyond silicon. In fact, almost all of the devices we develop don’t use any silicon at all!” Through a novel miniaturization paradigm (AmalgaTM), Xidas designs and builds micro-scale products not possible before. We produce a new breed of miniature solutions to spearhead emerging Industrial, IoT, and life-tech applications. UCI spin-out Integra Devices has been awarded Frost & Sullivan’s “2018 Innovation Award” for the 3D micro-sensors and devices industry in North America. With their proprietary and novel manufacturing paradigm, AMALGA™, Integra has pioneered breakthroughs in micro-device development by enabling and building products that before were not yet possible.


“MEMs manufacturing through traditional semiconductor thin-film approaches are built like a skyscraper,” says Dhillon. “You build one layer on top of another until you have the 3D multilayer structure you need. This process can limit the layers you want to use.” Since each layer is made on top of the other, engineers need to ensure that the manufacturing process of the current layer won’t damage the layers below. For example, think of a MEMS device with a polymer and ceramic layer. If the polymer layer comes before the ceramic one, then the heat needed to cure the ceramic would destroy the polymer.

Integra Devices’ Amalga process focuses on building each layer of the electromechanical device separately. These layers are then aligned and laminated together after each one has been created individually — like a wedding cake. “Now the material limitations of building microelectromechanical devices are out the window,” says Dhillon. “They can be as thin or as thick as they need to be.” Xidas leverages its breakthrough patented technologies and multi-disciplinary expertise to design and produce highly integrated smart modules and sensors for deployment in a wide variety of IoT scenarios. Xidas edge solutions combine intelligence, zero-power (energy harvesting), sensor fusion and integration. What makes Integra Devices’ paradigm even more intriguing is that it does not require new manufacturing technologies or machines, as manufacturers already have the capabilities to fabricate components to specification. The industry has been looking for ways to miniaturize all manner of devices, too.


Integra Devices has compiled industry estimates for the total available market for industrial components and mechanical devices to be greater than $200 billion. That being said, the existing MEMS industry has only managed to miniaturize about 10 percent of that market. “There’s a big piece of the pie that has yet to be miniaturized and that’s what we are aiming at,” said Sourabh Dhillon, business development manager at Integra Devices. “We don’t look to compete with what’s already been miniaturized, like accelerometers, microphones or gyroscopes; those have already been miniaturized successfully. Integra Devices is going to build the devices that the industry could not.”


Making Connections

The Amalga process will be big news for those creating microwave relays for the 5G, test and measurement markets. Electromechanical relays – or switches – control radio frequency signals and are mainly used for communications technologies, like fifth-generation (5G) communication networks, whose faster connection is made possible by transmitting at higher frequencies than previously used. The problem Integra Devices aims to solve with their millimeter-wave relay comes with the nature of higher frequency transmission. Higher frequencies cannot go through solid structures, like walls or buildings, as easily as lower frequencies and they have a limited range. This means that there needs to be a larger infrastructure than previous-generation technologies and, therefore, more cellular base stations closer together.


Historically, there are two types of switches available, solid-state switches and larger electromechanical switches. MEMs switch development has attempted to combine the benefits of each, with limited success. “MEMS developers have tried to miniaturize electromechanical switches for years, but the thin film approach makes this hard,” says Dhillon. “With the layers so thin and delicate, it is tough to get good contact and switch high power through it. Integra Devices is testing a switch that is similar in size to the solid-state switch with the high performance of a larger electromechanical switch.”


A high-performing microelectromechanical relay was a long sought-after device in the MEMS industry. Integra Devices’ micro-relays are measured in millimeters instead of inches. The first product that Integra Devices developed and miniaturized was a high-performing electromechanical relay for microwave – or millimeter-wave – frequencies, a long sought-after device in the MEMS industry. This relay caught the attention of Lockheed Martin, a global aerospace and defense company with worldwide interests, who became their first customer, allowing Integra Devices to be customer-funded from an early stage – a rarity in the startup space.


Integra Devices’ micro-relay can be manufactured much more cost-effectively than existing relays and is physically smaller – measured in millimeters instead of inches – all without any loss in performance. This puts Integra Devices in a well-suited position to help speed the adoption of 5G, in addition to advancing other industries in need of miniaturized solutions.


The eyelash-size, battery-free, biocompatible pressure sensor to measure pressure in the eye.

Having unlocked the secret to miniaturizing devices, Integra Devices has been busy perfecting their relay and a number of other devices. A glaucoma stent company contracted the startup to develop an eyelash-size, battery-free, biocompatible pressure sensor to measure pressure in the eye.


Another pressure sensor Integra Devices is working on for drug delivery aims to ensure proper doses are being administered by monitoring for blockages or leakages in the delivery system, allowing at-home chemotherapy. They built prototypes of Proof of Product (POP) Grants award winner Dr. Hamid Djalilian’s new hearing aid, which uses an actuator that sits on the tympanic membrane to mechanically move the eardrum and create sound. They are also developing an energy-harvesting device that uses machine vibrations to power the next generation of Industrial Internet of Things devices – which will eliminate the need for batteries in devices used in monitoring and data collection – after they received a grant from the National Science Foundation.


Despite all of these new micro-devices and applications, Integra Devices maintains their primary focus on commercializing their micro-relay. From there, the startup aims to become a household name in industrial and life science components, much like General Electric, Siemens and Bosch, who build components for everything from consumer electronics to military applications. Integra Devices’ new paradigm in micro-device manufacturing, their appetite for innovation and their recently completed $6 million Series A funding round led by Kairos Ventures has the potential to take them there.


MM-Wave Substrates and Integrated Asemblies

Small, 3-D integrated substrates and assemblies capable of transporting high frequency microwaves and millimeter waves. 3D hollow waveguide and coaxial transmission systems can be produced at moderate cost.


How Simulation Helps Design Microelectromechanical Devices

Structural simulation assesses the bonding of the dissimilar materials in a microelectromechanical device.Structural simulation assesses the bonding of the dissimilar materials in a microelectromechanical device. Simulation has a big part in the design of microelectromechanical devices. Dhillon’s team uses the Ansys platform to understand the mechanical, thermal and electrical implications of bonding layers of dissimilar materials together.


“In particular, Ansys simulations are used to understand the stress, tolerance and performance of each layer and bonding material that goes into the Amalga process,” says Dhillon. “Simulation is also used to understand the electrical and mechanical performances of the devices. Finally, we use Ansys to understand the effects of the environment on the device in order to design it for reliability.”



About Rajesh Uppal

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