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.

Grand Master

Taking the most novel title was a micro chess set created by students at
Texas Tech that is 435 micrometers by 435 micrometers. It comes with micropieces scored with the design of traditional chess figures that are approximately 50 micrometers each. Each piece is outfitted with even tinier stubs that allow a microrobotic arm to move them from square to square. The design integrates bidirectional linear drives that enable the movement of pieces longitudinally, a positioning stage with two degrees of freedom. Space along the side of the board is available to hold captured pieces.

Just a (very) little off the top

Getting the nod in the educational section of the contest was a microbarbershop intended to service a single hair designed by students at the
University of Utah. It consists of a microgripper that reaches off the chip to grasp a human hair and holds it in front of an off-chip deployed microbuzzsaw to be cut. Both microtools, driven by a ratcheting actuator, will be observed at a video-enabled station and portrayed on a large video monitor as they move and cut a human hair.

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 contest

Sandia Labs says the contest is designed to help develop a sense of the maximum and minimum displacement of a micro object, the amount of force needed to move it and the degrees of freedom needed for a part to accomplish its preset task. This year’s contest participants included the Air Force Institute of Technology, the universities of Oklahoma and New Mexico and the Central New Mexico Community College.

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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