Research Magazine 2006

Faster, smaller, cheaper

Texas Microfactory produces tiny devices with large commercial potential

A tour of all the micromanufacturing research and production factories in Texas would have only one stop: the Texas Microfactory in UT Arlington’s Automation & Robotics Research Institute.

Micromanufacturing refers to the standardized manufacturing of devices with micron-size components. One millimeter contains a thousand microns.

“A hair is about 150 microns wide,” ARRI Director Harry Stephanou explains. “We’re dealing with products that either have parts that are micron size or features on these parts that are micron size or that require micron or sub-micron precision in the way you assemble them.”

Dr. Harry Stephanou

Under Dr. Harry Stephanou's direction, the Texas Microfactory focuses on commercial applications for micron-sized devices.

In short, tiny. Not nano tiny, but clearly headed in that direction.

Scheduled to receive a $3.5 million federal grant from the Office of Naval Research, the Texas Microfactory is a one-of-a-kind, low-cost clean room that aims to demonstrate reconfigurable microengineering and micromachining with large commercial potential.

It’s a place where theory meets pragmatic purpose. The clean room that houses the factory, currently about 900 square feet, is set to double in size.

“Our intent is to be the national leader in developing a reliable and affordable manufacturing facility for pilot, low-volume, proof-of-concept production for micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS),” Dr. Stephanou says. “We want to develop manufacturing processes to make MEMS faster, smaller and cheaper.”

It’s an ambition that comes with considerable economic consequences. The global market for microsystems in 2007 was about $55 billion, with an annual growth of 20 percent. Major industrial sectors include consumer products, the defense industry, health care, communications and transportation products and applications.

"Micromanufacturing is typically knowledge based and also low volume. We want to grow smart manufacturing that stays in this state and nation."

The Office of Naval Research, for instance, wants to study the feasibility of very small mobile sensors to determine how they might be manufactured, as Stephanou would say, faster, smaller and cheaper.

“Micromanufacturing is a unique niche. We go from the chip, which many people know how to manufacture, to a device. You have to interconnect the chip with the outside world, like plumbing is necessary for a house, except that we’re dealing with very small parts that need to be aligned precisely.”

The Texas Microfactory is loaded with equipment capable of assembling such small devices, and it can provide the microengineering research for designing packaging to protect such devices along with “interconnects” with other devices.

“It’s rather obvious that large-scale manufacturing is being moved outside this country, particularly to Asia,” Stephanou says. “But micromanufacturing is typically knowledge based and also low volume. We want to grow smart manufacturing that stays in this state and nation.”

Though substantial research is involved in such complicated manufacturing processes, Stephanou emphasizes that the goal is commercial use.

“You have to build something,” he says. “This is the key to economic development and to building wealth in the new economy.”

And, he says, the Texas Microfactory is only the first step in a three-part growth process. Step two is to build a dedicated pilot production facility (he hopes to accomplish this in two to three years), and step three is the construction of full-scale micromanufacturing production facilities.

“Our challenge is how to make small batches, a hundred or a thousand units of something, then thousands of something else and something else. You need to have modular assembly, need to be able to do assembly across many scales, from sub-micron, from a few nanometers to a few meters. That’s very expensive because there’s a conflict. On one hand, you need a lot of precision, and on the other a large range of motion. At the end of the day, can you make it cheap enough so that it doesn’t go overseas?”

A critical consideration in this process will be the development of more micromanufacturing engineers, a multidisciplinary field with an enormous shortage. Stephanou is working on a proposal for UT Arlington to offer a microengineering doctoral degree.

The institute director visualizes a program in which graduates serve internships at the microengineering factory, much as physicians serve a residency in hospitals.

“The microfactory should be an attraction for the very best of students. I believe that in order for this country to succeed, we’re going to have to develop a new class of leaders who are a blend of engineer/scientist/entrepreneur. We want to graduate the next corporate CEOs—the next Bill Gates.”

- O.K. Carter