Archived Viewpoints


About This Technology

Industry continuously strives to make smaller and lighter products that are lower in cost yet have increased functionality. Microelectromechanical systems is a class of device or microsystem that researchers produce using micromachining technology, which comprises techniques to make components and devices whose features measure in the tens to hundreds of microns. Initially, researchers borrowed lithography techniques for making two-dimensional integrated circuits from the electronics industry to micromachine simple three-dimensional cavities and freestanding membranes and cantilevers for sensor applications. Not only are microsensors smaller than conventional sensors—a characteristic that allows more functions in the same space—but also they can respond more quickly and more accurately because of the smaller distances in use. Moreover, producing them in large batches is inexpensive. The extension of lithography methods and the development of new micromachining techniques have allowed the production of freely moving micromechanical parts.

The biggest market for micromachining is in sensing, from pressure sensors to accelerometers and gyroscopes, but though commercialization first centered on the automotive business, reduced cost has allowed sensors to reach mass consumer markets, enabling new features for mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, and wearables. Demands for mobile devices with small form factors, rich features, and improved power consumption are also creating a need for new micromachined radio-frequency components (RF MEMS) and timing devices. Micromachining is in use to create the tiny nozzle arrays in ink-jet- and 3D-printer heads, slider components for hard-disk drives, and micromirror-based projection displays. Micromachining is enabling the development of microfluidic channels for DNA chips, allowing massive parallelism for high-throughput screening techniques; is reducing some analytical instruments to handheld size; and is creating new types of drug-delivery systems.

Almost every industry is enjoying the benefits of micromachining—particularly the mobile-device, automotive, telecommunications, and health-care industries. The relatively low cost of microsensors—some only a few cents each—will also allow manufacturers to use sensors in many more products—including fitness trackers, drones, home appliances, toys, and products for home health care—than is now possible. These sensors and other micromechanical devices have begun to incorporate remote powering and wireless communications, enabling a wide range of useful applications and helping stakeholders realize longstanding visions of an Internet of Things.

At some time, the micromachining industry will contend with nanotechnology. MEMS devices already incorporate nanometer-scale particles and structures as sensor elements, but micromachining processes may also incorporate additional concepts such as molecular manufacturing and self-assembly.