Micro-machines advance electronics

Saturday, 13 March, 2004

Tiny machines could be used to revolutionise the manufacture of electronic devices such as minute 'invisible' hearing aids and the new generation of video mobile phones.

Innovative micro-machines research taking place at Greenwich University, in the UK, will provide the manufacturing industry with microsystems technology to allow mass production of the next generation of intelligent products such as mobile phones, visual display equipment and medical devices.

Rajkuma Durairaj, a research fellow at the university's Medway School of Engineering, has already exhibited his work on the project - Microsystem Assembly Technology for the 21st Century - at a reception for young engineers in London. He explained: "Micro-machines are expected to be the next logical step in the silicon revolution, which began over three decades ago with the introduction of the first integrated circuit. We, in the Electronics Manufacturing Engineering Research Group, are working on a multidisciplinary project to identify a process route to integrate microsystems-based components using low-cost manufacturing methods."

Until now, microsystems-based technology, known as micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), has been mainly reserved for the aerospace industry rather than consumer products. The automotive industry is starting to employ the technology to produce vehicles that 'know' when to switch on their lights and windscreen wipers. The microsystems project concentrates on integrating low-cost flip-chips - the latest microchips - in the existing manufacturing processes for intelligent consumer products to make production easier and cheaper.

In addition to gains in production volumes and lower retail costs, the MEMS technology, which includes flexible printed circuit boards, will allow the creation of smaller devices with even more functions.

The project began in June 2001 with funding from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It has just been extended for a further year to 2004. As part of a parallel EPSRC-funded project, Professor Chris Bailey and his group from Greenwich University's School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences are researching the performance of microsystems assembly in terms of their in-service reliability.

The projects being supported by various partners in industry, including Celestica UK, one of the major contract manufacturers of mobile phones and computer motherboards; Merlin Circuits; Micro Emissive Display; and Alpha Fry Technology. The focal points of the group's research are to identify, explore and develop suitable assembly and packaging technologies to meet the challenges of miniaturisation facing the electronics industry.

The group has a close history of working with industry, from fundamentals through proof of concept to exploitation, and has acquired an international reputation for successful research in many areas including electronics manufacturing and assembly; materials characterisation; process modelling; and supply chain management.

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