For most of us, our days revolve around high-tech digital devices. We navigate traffic with smartphones, monitor our health with smartwatches, warm up meals in microwaves and write emails on laptops. These devices rely on microelectronics: tiny electronic components, like computer chips, with individual parts that can be smaller than dust mites.
One key element of microelectronics is a group of components known as Micro Electro Multiphysical Systems (MEMS) transducers, which convert real-world phenomena like temperature, motion, acoustic signals and force into digital signals. MEMS transducers essentially bridge the real world and the digital, enabling devices to both understand physical conditions around them and process an appropriate response.
As Head of the MEMS Department at A*STAR’s Institute of Microelectronics (IME), Yao Zhu and her team focus on developing the sensors and actuators that enhance how MEMS transducers interact with their environment. These improvements could lead to more efficient, compact and affordable electronic devices— which could make a big difference for people who rely on medical devices like pacemakers for their daily lives.
In an interview with A*STAR Research, Zhu shares her thoughts on the future of IME’s MEMS team, as well as the need for collaboration between researchers and industry to bring microelectronic innovations more effectively from the lab into the hands of everyday users.
Q: What sparked your interest in microelectronics?
Microelectronics has always fascinated me. The field plays a pivotal role in advancing so many industries: automotive, computing, communication, healthcare and more. The groundbreaking technologies of our time, including artificial intelligence, 5G communications, robotics and even quantum computing are all built on its foundation.
My curiosity about microelectronics was fuelled by the evolution of devices like laptops, smartphones and wearables that grow more powerful, intelligent and feature-rich each year. What captivates me the most about the field is its multidisciplinary nature: it brings together experts across electronics, physics, chemistry and materials science, providing endless learning opportunities.
Q: Tell us about your work in MEMS systems.
Computers process information electronically, but the information in the real world exists in various non- electronic forms such as heat, motion, sound and force. MEMS transducers are a crucial link between the two worlds. Our work tries to address key challenges such as developing high-performance functional materials to build them with, and designing differentiated transduction structures that improve their sensitivity, selectivity and power efficiency.
We also strive to establish a versatile integration platform capable of hosting multi-physics devices and applications. We employ manufacturable semiconductor-based batch processes to produce thousands of miniature devices per wafer while ensuring controlled quality and cost.
Q: What does it take to scale up research to commercial manufacturing?
Assembling a strong team with innovative ideas and the ability to demonstrate them through experimentation is essential. However, transitioning from an innovative concept to commercial production can be a complex process with various challenges.
Designers must consider factors like product manufacturability, market potential, competition, customer requirements and regulatory aspects while developing a compelling value proposition. It is crucial to stay updated on the global market and tech trends to stay competitive.
Additionally, instead of focusing on single parameters or performance metrics, designers should ensure their final product meets a comprehensive set of performance requirements. Consider also the factors that will make mass production feasible, such as production costs, material availability and process complexity. The support of ecosystem partners such as A*STAR Innovation and Enterprise (I&E) can help connect designers with needed resources and expertise from industry and other institutions.
Q: Why is it important to work with industry partners?
Collaborations with them provide valuable insights into the potential impact and value of our tech, industry needs and the readiness of manufacturing technologies. They offer a practical perspective that goes beyond reading papers and market reports. Furthermore, industry partners can accelerate tech development and validate ideas through real-world applications.
One example of an impactful research collaboration between our team and industry partners is the Lab-in-Fab project initiated in 2020 with STMicroelectronics and Ulvac Technologies. In a traditional MEMS development model called ‘Lab-to-Fab’, a device concept is proven in a university or research institute’s lab, then transferred to a fabrication lab, or ‘fab’, for small volume production. However, this tech transfer can be challenging as mismatches between materials and tool sets can lead to years of redevelopment or revisions.
To address this, we introduced ‘Lab-in-Fab’, a new development model that accelerates the transition from proof-of-concept to a product by conducting both device R&D and small volume production under the same roof. In this model, our strong R&D team works closely with each customer to refine their device concepts; STMicroelectronics provides an experienced manufacturer’s feedback on its production feasibility; and Ulvac provides advanced equipment and processes for piezoelectric thin film fabrication.
So far, this collaborative model has been well-received by MEMS companies and researchers. As we enter the project’s second phase, we aim to further advance tech development and assist more MEMS companies in successfully bringing their products to market.
Q: How might microelectronics R&D address chip shortages?
While there isn’t a straightforward solution to those solely through R&D, we can help alleviate them by attracting critical industry partners to Singapore through our world-class R&D capabilities. By adding value for our partners and fostering collaboration, we can strengthen the regional supply chain and mitigate disruptions. R&D can also play a role in exploring alternative materials, processes and design strategies that optimise chip production and enhance the semiconductor industry’s overall efficiency and resilience.
Q: What are the MEMS team's plans over the next five years?
Our goal is to establish Singapore as a global centre of excellence in piezoelectric MEMS technologies. We want A*STAR to be the industry’s preferred choice when developing new MEMS devices. To achieve this, we will continue to push the boundaries of piezoelectric functional materials; develop robust and versatile integration platforms; and showcase innovative reference designs.
A*STAR’s unique advantage lies in its comprehensive research capabilities, including MEMS device and process development from IME; new materials exploration from the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE); and modelling from the Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC). We will further enhance our capabilities within the agency and local universities while seeking collaborations with overseas universities. Working closely with strategic industry partners and staying updated on industry trends will be critical to our success.
Q: What advice do you have for young researchers looking to work with industry partners?
Firstly, embrace early feedback. Seek it from industry partners to ensure your work aligns with real-world needs and challenges. Take it as constructive criticism as it will help you refine your ideas and focus your efforts on the most relevant problems.
Secondly, understand industry requirements. This includes its tech capabilities, market demands, cost considerations and competitive landscape. If you can align your research with their needs, you’re more likely to create impactful solutions.
Finally, be adaptable and flexible. Understand that an industry’s priorities and timelines may differ from academic settings. Be prepared to adjust your research focus, methodology or scope to align with their requirements if needed.