Anyone who subscribes to the view that good things come in small packages would no doubt be impressed by the winners of this year’s design contest held at Sandia Labs for novel and educational microelectromechanical systems (MEMs). The big, or should I say exceedingly small, winners were the world’s smallest chessboard, which is about the diameter of four human hairs, and a pea-sized microbarbershop that is intended to service a single hair.
The contest, open to institutional members of the Sandia-led MEMS University Alliance program, provides an arena for the nation’s student engineers to hone their skills in designing and using microdevices. Such devices are used to probe biological cells, arrange and operate components of telecommunications and high-tech machinery and operate many home devices.
Also included are a moveable micromirror, an off-chip micro hair dryer and an off-chip single-hair “teaser” to complete the hair’s do and convey an intuitive sense of relative scale for these tiny machines.
The MEMS University Alliance is part of Sandia’s outreach to universities to improve engineering education and is open to any US institution of higher learning. The alliance provides classroom teaching materials and licenses for Sandia’s special SUMMiT V design tools at a reduced cost to make it possible for a university without its own fabrication facilities to develop a curriculum in MEMS.
The entire process takes almost nine months. It starts with students developing ideas for a device, followed by creation of an accurate computer model of a design that might work, analysis of the design and, finally, design submission. Sandia’s MEMS experts and university professors review the design and determine the winners.
Sandia’s MESA fabrication facility then creates parts for each of the entrants. The SUMMiT V fabrication process makes MEMS devices with five levels of polysilicon, the most of any standard process, and is especially well-suited for making complex mechanisms such as gear drive trains. Fabricated parts are shipped back to the university students for lengthy tests to determine whether the final product matches the purpose of the original computer simulation.
In what is no doubt a big deal for those involved, the two winning teams will now see their designs birthed in Sandia Lab’s microfabrication facility.
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