The advances being made in miniaturisation are of relevance to all manufacturing sectors and some believe they herald a "second industrial revolution". So as not to miss out on this "microtechnology" boom, companies are joining forces and forming networks.
From computers to microsurgery
equipment, from mobile phones to alarm or monitoring systems, microsystems
are high-value-added products with enormous commercial potential.
Among their advantages are the fact that they use environmentally
friendly manufacturing processes and can drastically reduce the
amount of consumables needed, while at the same time allowing substantial
savings in raw materials. The current boom in miniaturisation is
of interest to all sectors, right across the board.
"In the seventies, Europe often got left behind in the technological
and economic developments in microelectronics. The expansion of
microtechnology into an ever wider range of areas gives us a second
chance," explains Wolfgang Ehrfeld, managing director of the
Institut für Mikrotechnik in Mayence (Germany). "We already
have the necessary human and technical resources to seize this opportunity.
But we also need an aggressive strategy specifically focused on
this promising area in order to capitalise on this know-how. All
the industrially powerful nations have already recognised the importance
of microtechnology and have begun activities in this field. If Europe
wants to come out on top in this technology race, the first thing
we have to do is to avoid fragmentation into pointless parallel
development projects, so that we can pool our skills and develop
the market together."
It was with this in mind that Wolfgang Ehrfeld designed the exciting new microsystem manufacturing technology called LIGA (Lithographie, Galvanoformung, Abformung) - developed in the eighties when he was a researcher at the Kernforschungszentrum in Karlsruhe. Based on computer-aided design of the micro-part to be produced, the LIGA process reproduces a "positive" model of the part using X-ray lithography on a high-strength material. A conductive material - such as metal - is deposited on this model and the resulting structure is then used as a mould for the final part, which will be cast from the desired material. This high-precision (less than 1 micrometre, i.e. a thousandth of a millimetre) microfabrication technology combines a high degree of design flexibility with a wide choice of materials (polymers, ceramics, metal) and large-scale production capacity.
Developed in Germany, this key technique had never spread beyond the border, however. Realising that if he didn't act fast to bring the LIGA process to the attention of European industry at large, the Americans and Japanese would exploit it first, Wolfgang Ehrfeld contacted the European Commission. In an effort to rally together European microfabrication experts, he applied to the Human Capital and Mobility programme, which aims to promote the training and advancement of scientists and engineers through staff exchanges between "networked" laboratories working on common research topics.
In 1994, Wolfgang Ehrfeld thus managed to assemble a European network encompassing twelve Member State research centres specialising in microfabrication, who were later joined, in March 1995, by four Central and Eastern European centres. Thanks to intensive exchanges and extensive collaboration within this network, the LIGA-based technologies for designing and building microsystems were widely disseminated and at the same time improved, in particular through LIGA-News, a technology newsletter distributed not only in Europe but also worldwide. A Greek team from Heraklion, for example, told the network members about an ingenious technique for designing a material which could be used to build a new type of high-frequency device (in the giga-Hertz range), with applications in mobile communications. At the same time, at the centre of the network, the Human Capital and Mobility programme helped to turn the Institut für Mikrotechnik into what is known in the Commission as a "large-scale facility", i.e. a scientific installation open to European researchers, in this case those looking to use and develop applications in advanced microfabrication technologies (some examples are shown in the illustrations).