More than 20 years ago, researchers found that selective doping and etching techniques could be used to fabricate 3-D structural elements on a silicon wafer. Shortly thereafter, they realized that the use of "sacrificial" layers, which enabled the undercutting of selected wafer elements, allowed these elements to "float" above the surface of the substrate. Their findings led to the development of microstructures technology (MST) and its subset, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).
Despite being hailed as a revolutionary enabling technology, MST has only achieved significant success in certain niche applications. Hard disk drive (HDD) heads, which are produced through MST techniques, are the most prevalent and comprise, at present, the largest dollar volume.
True MEMS devices, which include moving or deformable parts, have, until now, been largely limited to ink jet printer cartridges and heads, inertial measurement sensors (accelerometers, microgyroscopes), and process/environmental variable sensors (for pressure, flow, etc.).
Forward-thinking researchers and companies have investigated, with some success, diverse areas such as MEMS memory and display devices, microrelays (including RF), and a host of MST/MEMS-based medical and analytical devices. Commercialization has, however, been somewhat limited. The industry as a whole has been anxiously awaiting the emergence of a "killer" application that would allow the technology to realize its full potential.
It's here, and "in spades"
The emergence of a true "killer" application is driven by demand at a grass-roots level, not by technological breakthrough. For example, the demand by gamers for faster, more powerful machines with increasingly realistic graphics capability causes the computer hardware industry to continuously strive to reach new heights in performance. (Business or "casual" users, in general, don't require [greater than]1GHz processors or 3-D graphics.)
Despite the "dot-com meltdown" and the apparent fallacy of the "new economy," "Dick and Jane Consumer" demand quicker-loading, faster-response, streaming audio and video, 3-D graphics, and the like, to enhance the entertainment value of their Internet experiences and to reduce frustrations. This necessitates improved, high-speed (broadband) Internet access, presenting MST/MEMS technology with a huge opportunity. It has accelerated the global implementation of optical communications networks which, in turn, has created an unprecedented need for optical switching...
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