Workshop on National Strategies to Develop the MEMS Industry in Japan
Global Emerging Technology Institute
The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) held a workshop in mid-January in order to discuss national strategies to develop the MEMS industry in Japan. NEDO is a quasi-government organization that specializes in the planning and execution of national research and development initiatives under the auspice of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). At the workshop, MEMS experts in academia and industry gave presentations about MEMS device and process technologies and business opportunities. As part of a new program called FOCUS21, METI has submitted a budget request of 2.1 billion yen (US$18 million) for fiscal 2003 (April 2003-March 2004) specifically for the promotion of the MEMS industry in Japan. The FOCUS21 program is designed to help accelerate the commercialization of innovative technologies that would lead to the revitalization of the Japanese economy. METI's fiscal 2003 budget for the FOCUS21 program is 55.4 billion yen (US$460 million). The recent workshop was held in order to publicize the aims of the aforementioned industrial policy measures and to sound out opinions from a wider audience.
METI's FOCUS21 program will provide matching funds for the speedy commercialization of innovative technologies in four priority areas. These areas include the life sciences, information & communications, environmental sciences, and nanotechnology & materials. This project supporting the MEMS industry falls under the general "information & communications" funding category. The NEDO staff, in close consultation with industrialists and academics, have chosen to promote the commercialization of sensor MEMS, optical MEMS and RF MEMS devices under the scheme. One of the main reasons behind the selection of these categories (sensor, optical, and RF MEMS) is the prediction that such devices will play a key role in the future of ubiquitous networks where computing and communications will be seamlessly intertwined with sensing capabilities in order to provide innovative products and services. The focus on optical MEMS seems to be counter-intuitive given the current situation in the telecommunications industry. However, a few presenters believed that the policy will help the competitiveness of Japanese companies when the industry revives itself and demand recovers two to three years from now.
Policy makers believe that a well-established foundry service infrastructure will be necessary in order to increase the rate of commercialization of MEMS devices. With this in mind, the Japanese Micromachine Center, also under the auspices of METI, has played a central role in networking seven MEMS foundry service providers in Japan, somewhat following the idea of the MEMS Exchange in the U.S. The MEMS Exchange coordinates a network of fabrication centers that lets their users draft process sequences that are performed across the boundaries separating the individual member facilities. The MEMS Exchange project in the U.S. is supported by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Japanese companies recently formed the MEMS Foundry Industry Committee in order to discuss the establishment of a Foundry Network System (FNS). The FNS, a kind of industry association consisting of the foundry service providers that will function as a hub for the other MEMS players (research institutions, process and design centers, and user companies), will help grow the industry. While the role and responsibility of the proposed FNS is still under discussion, the members will initially cooperate in order to provide users with easy access to information about the foundry services available from participating companies. The MEMS Foundry Industry Committee members include Oki Electric Industry Co., Ltd., Omron Corporation, Olympus Optical Co., Ltd., Hitachi, Ltd., Fujikura Ltd., Matsushita Electric Works, Ltd., and Fuji Research Institute Corporation.
In the panel session chaired by Professor Susumu Sugiyama of Ritsumeikan University, the panelists discussed the challenges in MEMS technology development, the necessity of a foundry network, and Japan's position in the global MEMS industry. It was pointed out that foundry services were still too costly, for small to medium size enterprises (SMEs) and even large firms, to use to develop prototypes. For example, it could cost several million yen (tens of thousands of US dollars) to make a prototype, and the prototype will most likely need to be fabricated several times before completion. One panelist suggested that the development of photolithography masks for transferring fine structure patterns on silicon wafers should be somewhat integrated in a cost-effective manner by the proposed network of MEMS foundries. Another theme mentioned during the panel discussion was the shortage of skilled MEMS engineers in Japan and the importance of education and training. A panelist from a foundry service provider commented that his firm could not allocate enough technical staff to deal with engineering support requests from customers because of costs, and wanted to see the community help grow the number of MEMS engineers. In that respect, the proposed FNS might also play the role of an industrial training center if established. More details about the fund-matching scheme for MEMS industry players and the FNS proposal will become available later this fiscal year in April.