Updated October 2021
MEMS Foundry Partnership Considerations
There are fundamental aspects to consider when choosing a MEMS Foundry partner. This article addresses what to consider when deciding on a MEMS Foundry partnership:
1. Production Capacity
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. For example, if volume needs are lower than the MEMS Foundry’s average customer, pricing may be higher, and the foundry may become inattentive to your needs.
Conversely, when 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.
Each foundry is unique — offering varied equipment sets and process technologies that will likely differ from what you used during your proof-of-concept phase. Partner with your foundry in developing a manufacturing process that takes full advantage of their expertise and equipment set.
Also remember to collaborate on short-loop tests, which can prove valuable for developing a production-worthy process. In addition to process transfer expertise, a MEMS Foundry should be able to support small design revisions as your technology is improved and adjusted. The right foundry should improve device reliability and increase yield.
2. Capability Transparency + Process Documentation
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. It’s a high priority that a MEMS Foundry partner 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 the process has been stabilized and documented, you can ask your foundry to develop a Process Control Plan.
While Process Control Plans can be reviewed anytime, many companies choose to review this documentation during their regularly scheduled quality audits.
3. Process Flexibility
Inquire about a MEMS Foundry’s expertise in transferring processes with the greatest efficiency. Consider asking the following questions:
- Is there 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, the foundry of choice will most likely have years of experience and can easily replicate a manufacturing process.
Moving into production mode, manufacturing times will decrease and so will the cost per die. This gives your team more time to focus on packaging, building a strong supply chain, developing customers, and producing your next-generation device.
4. Team & Culture Compatibility
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 MEMS Foundry candidates for cultural compatibility with your own company.
Get a sense of how you will work together, making sure that the technical teams can come together and work in a non-confrontational way. Understand that asking questions helps solidify your partnership expectations and avoid potential misunderstands:
- Clarify the mode and frequency of your communications – how often should you meet in person or talk by phone?
- Will your foundry team respond to emails on a daily basis?
- Is there more than one go-to person on the foundry team who shares ownership of your project — or are you dependent on a single point-person for your communications?
The more you understand how and when to communicate with your foundry, the better. The unexpected can happen, and 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.
5. Foundry Location & Compliance
While you may have visions of your foundry becoming a working outpost for your engineering team, there really is little need to be on location 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.-based company and the technology is International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR)-regulated, you will need to select a U.S MEMS Foundry that is ITAR-compliant.
The countries in which technology is patented can also help to determine where manufacturing takes place.
6. Protect Intellectual Property
The good news is that foundries are typically careful about honoring proprietary information. Nevertheless, it is important to have a clear understanding of whether your foundry considers any particular process technologies their IP.
Foundries can develop process modules that they consider trade secrets, and your foundry may consider some process technologies, e.g., through silicon vias, as proprietary.
Likewise, your company might be sharing some of its own sensitive technology with the foundry. In such close collaborative relationships, the exchange of confidential information is essential.
7. Patents and Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)
A patent grants you the sole right to exclude others from making, using, or selling your invention but a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) creates a confidential relationship between two parties in order to protect proprietary information.
Be sure to have an NDA in place before you disclose any sensitive information to a foundry. An NDA may be set up unilaterally, protecting only your company’s information; however, most foundries will request that you enter into a bilateral (or mutual) NDA, which also covers their information under the agreement.
There are several main components of an NDA. To get started, follow this simple checklist to ensure that your NDA provides a structure that will allow you to feel comfortable disclosing sensitive information to your foundry partner.
Your NDA should cover:
- How information may be disclosed and how it should be identified as confidential.
- A definition of who will have access to the confidential information. For example, information considered confidential should only be disclosed to employees on a need-to-know basis.
- A qualifying statement that indicates that the party receiving confidential information will protect that confidential information from unauthorized use and disclosure.
- The term of the agreement, which is usually between one and three years.
- How long the information should be kept confidential, which is usually between three and seven years.
- A statement defining under which circumstances information no longer qualifies as confidential. For example, the NDA might include the following language: “This agreement does not apply to information that is rightfully received from a third party, independently developed by the receiving party or has become publicly available through no wrong doing of the receiving party.”
An NDA will include heaps of other legal jargon to support the main components. Always have an attorney develop an NDA that works best for you.
8. When is the Best Time to Engage a MEMS Foundry?
For companies competing in the fast-growing world of Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), the move from R&D to pilot production presents some interesting challenges. While entering the production phase can seem daunting to both startups and established companies, partnering with the right MEMS foundry will relieve unnecessary stress and increase your bottom line.
Proof of Concept Phase
Before engaging a MEMS foundry, invest some time and resources upfront during the proof of concept phase. Develop a manufacturing process for light prototyping, so that your internal teams already have a sense of what works and what doesn’t.
Each foundry is unique — offering varied equipment sets and process technologies that will likely differ from what you used during your proof-of-concept phase. Partner with your foundry in developing a manufacturing process that takes full advantage of their expertise and equipment set. Also remember to collaborate on short-loop tests, which can prove valuable for developing a production-worthy process.
In addition to process transfer expertise, a MEMS foundry should also be able to support small design revisions as your technology is improved and adjusted. The right foundry should improve device reliability and increase yield.
Moving From R&D to Pilot Production
While there is no guaranteed matchmaking process that will help you to find the right foundry partner, there are steps and considerations that you can take to improve your chances of building a successful relationship.
- Be clear on the type of expertise you need from your foundry
- Define any particular process technologies or production lines that you require
- Decide if you need a foundry with a track record in working with particular types of MEMS devices
- Ask plenty of questions about the foundry’s IP and how they will treat any technology that you deem sensitive
- Build a technical team that will allow you to achieve your goals
- And above all, keep the lines of communication open!
Once the proof-of-concept phase is completed, it’s time to consider transferring your process to a foundry.
The more you know and understand your MEMS foundry’s strengths and weaknesses, and they yours, the better the foundation will be upon which to build your products.
What Makes a Successful MEMS Foundry Partnership?
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 startups and established companies, partnering with the right MEMS foundry will relieve unnecessary stress and increase your bottom line.
Transitioning from MEMS R&D to pilot production can be challenging — and that is an understatement. You’re not just selecting a vendor when looking for a MEMS foundry. You are choosing an important partner that has the power to expedite and enhance or hinder success or hinder.
Contact Rogue Valley Microdevices to Learn More
Contact Rogue Valley Microdevices, an ITAR certified MEMS Foundry based in Medford, Oregon for more information about our capabilities.
*Portions of this article were originally published and reprinted with permission by EDN, December 21, 2016. Jessica Gomez, CEO, and Founder of Rogue Valley Microdevices authored the original article published in EDN.