Hoping to boost the high-tech allure of the region, a public consortium is spearheading efforts to realize a commercial microsystems foundry in Twente.
From the get-go, the Nanolab cleanroom of University of Twente’s nanotechnology institute MESA+ has been open for business as well as academic research. Companies working on integrated photonics, MEMS, microfluidics and other micro and nanotechnologies are welcome to do R&D, prototyping and even low-volume production runs there. With companies gaining access to expensive facilities that they can’t afford by themselves, and the institute getting useful outside input for its research agendas, the shared-facility arrangement has been a boon for all involved. However, it’s been getting harder to combine academic research activities with low and medium-volume production requirements of companies, says Timo Meinders, managing director of MESA+.
“Companies are expanding their manufacturing activities, which is causing some pressure on the allotted time for academic research. Additionally, once they’ve developed a stable manufacturing process, they want to change as little as possible. Researchers, on the other hand, want to take equipment to its very limits. Although manageable, it’s not optimal,” Meinders explains.
Making a virtue out of necessity, MESA+, along with a slew of local (semi-)public organizations including the regional government, is looking to realize a microsystems foundry in Twente, simultaneously allowing companies to scale up manufacturing, free up the cleanroom for fundamental and industrial research and raise the high-tech profile of the region.
It may seem like a curious plan at first, Mesa+ scientific director Guus Rijnders admits. “You’d expect the private sector to take the lead on this. At this stage, however, it’s better to avoid the association of the foundry with specific companies, since we’re aiming for a pure-play, open-to-all facility. In time, as the foundry and its customer base grow, it’s clear that it should evolve into a privately run enterprise. Our public consortium is just getting the ball rolling.”
“Bolstering our high-tech ecosystem by allowing existing companies to grow and new ones to take root in Twente serves a clear public purpose: the creation of wealth and employment,” adds Meinders. “Speaking as a university, we’re hoping that it will expand opportunities for public-private collaboration – the foundry is by no means intended to sever connections with the commercial sector. On the contrary, these partnerships are extremely important not only to us but also to companies.”
Rijnders nods: “It’s essential for any medium-sized high-tech company that R&D and manufacturing are linked. That link will continue thanks to the proximity of the MESA+ Nanolab and the foundry. Commercial R&D and prototyping will continue in the Nanolab, whereas the foundry will handle pilot production and eventually full-scale production.”
The Chiptech Twente plan features another major objective, which is to give MESA+’s chip design activities a leg up. The presence of both top-notch chip design and manufacturing will synergistically work to increase the high-tech allure of the Twente region even more, Meinders and Rijnders argue, even if the foundry doesn’t primarily target CMOS.
“Since electronics is an essential part of any microsystem and, reversely, other technologies can add to the functionality of CMOS, state-of-the-art IC design expertise can make the most of both. We expect combinations of different technologies to gain momentum over the next few years, and the foundry will be perfectly positioned to manufacture such heterogeneously or back-end integrated systems,” says Rijnders.
“We have all the key technologies in-house: from analog mixed-signal and RF design, photonics, quantum photonics, microfluidics, materials, thin-film application and advanced manufacturing. It’s precisely the combination of all these technologies that’s needed to not only design heterogeneous chips but also to build the machines to produce these systems. As a region, we have the ambition to grow towards large-scale production,” concludes Meinders.
The Chiptech Twente consortium aims to present a roadmap this September, detailing the necessary steps as well as the underlying strategy and required investments for the foundry. Meinders and Rijnders stress that the initiative fits well within the ambitions of the European Union to increase Europe’s technological autonomy.