Before engaging a MEMS foundry, invest time and resources during the proof of concept phase to develop a manufacturing process for light prototyping.
For companies competing in the fast-growing world of MEMS, the move from R&D to pilot production presents some interesting challenges. While entering the production phase can seem daunting to both start-ups and established companies, partnering with the right MEMS foundry will relieve unnecessary stress and increase your bottom line.
To find the optimal MEMS foundry partner, you will need answers to a few critical questions: When is the best time to engage a MEMS foundry? What essential requirements do you have for your partner? What about protecting your intellectual property? And once you’ve chosen a foundry, how should you work with them? We will examine these questions in a series of three blog posts; this is the first.
Before engaging a MEMS foundry, invest some time and resources up front during the proof of concept phase to develop a manufacturing process for light prototyping, so that your internal teams already have a sense of what works and what doesn’t.
Once the proof-of-concept phase is completed, it is time to consider transferring your process to a foundry. So for what things should you look in a MEMS foundry? Here is a list of the six most important.
Remember that not every foundry is appropriate for both pilot production and volume production. If your foundry is processing 200-300 wafers a month and you need to increase production to 2,000-5,000 wafers a month, a larger foundry may be a better fit. That’s because there is a sweet spot when it comes to volume capability. If volume needs are lower than the foundry’s average customer, the pricing may be higher, and the foundry may become inattentive to your needs. If volume requirements are higher than that foundry’s average customer, you may not be able to get the volume discounts needed to be competitive in the marketplace.
Look for a MEMS foundry that is honest about its capabilities. Your foundry team should be able to tell you where they are strong and where they lack experience. You also want a foundry partner that is transparent in providing process detail so be sure to set this expectation early on. If at some point your company needs to change direction and move to a larger foundry, having a well-documented process will save you time and money. Once you have stabilised and documented the process, you can ask your foundry to develop a process control plan. While you can review process control plans anytime, many companies choose to review this documentation during their regularly scheduled quality audits.
Tap your foundry’s expertise in transferring processes with the greatest efficiency. Does your foundry have a protocol in place for transferring your process? Do they have set requirements for documentation and file formats? The good news is that most foundries have done this many times before, and while your process may be unique, your foundry of choice will most likely have years of experience working with customers like you to create a more repeatable manufacturing process.
Make sure that your MEMS foundry has a quality management system in place. A well-designed system will provide the structure needed to address the inevitable challenges to come. Essential components include a document control system, employee competence, process control and traceability, and an equipment maintenance system. Implemented systematically, these components provide assurance that your foundry will be able to deliver predictable outcomes. Remember that it is not a showstopper if your foundry is not ISO certified because most foundries are open to customer audit, and this can be a good way of starting the relationship.
Creating a joint technical team is fundamental to the ultimate success of your project. Make sure that you and your foundry “speak the same language.”
Begin by interviewing foundry candidates for cultural compatibility with your own company. Get a sense how you will work together, making sure that the technical teams can come together and work in a non-confrontational way. Understand that the unexpected will happen, and that making a quick recovery is far more valuable than pointing fingers. This approach will save time, money and angst as you enter the production phase.
While you may have visions (or nightmares) of your foundry becoming a work outpost for your engineering team, there really is little need to be on location that frequently. While close communication is a requirement, you can meet many of your communication goals through phone and email. The location of your foundry does become important, however, when considering intellectual property protection. For example, if you are a U.S. company and the technology is ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation)-regulated, you will need to select a U.S. foundry that is ITAR-compliant. The countries in which a technology is patented can also help to determine where manufacturing takes place.
This article first appeared on EDN.