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Micro ElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS) are becoming increasingly common in engineered products. These products cover a vast array of markets, from automotive safety to consumer gaming electronics. Their use in space based products, however, has been limited. Following a number of meetings between STFC, industry and the European Space Agency (ESA), a workshop was proposed to explore the reasons why their use is inhibited, to suggest mechanisms to address these reasons and to bring together a network of industrial, academic and space professionals.
February 6th, 2012
UK MEMS Space Workshop: Knowledge Transfer from Ground to Space
On 3rd November 2011 the Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network (NanoKTN) contributed to an event hosted by the International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC), which sought to ‘harness the full capability of UK MEMS partners to the benefit of Space both within UK and Europe'. This would be achieved through the following goals:
a. Awareness. To engage with stakeholders within the academic, industrial and space environments and promote technological and application awareness within MEMS.
b. Landscape. To engage with major Space stakeholders and understand their key strategic landscape (specific relevance to MEMS).
c. Exemplars. To review the existing progress in MEMS technology transfer and appreciate the merits and of such a system.
d. Barriers. To discuss and identify the barriers to technology transfer of MEMS to space (or vice versa) and suggest mechanisms to overcome these barriers.
e. Framework. To discuss and outline the additional elements required for successful transfer including technologies and business environment.
f. Applications. To identify a small number of key space applications of MEMS and to outline the most appropriate MEMS technologies for these applications.
g. Demonstrators. To establish a number of demonstration projects from this activity and ascertain both the project plans and the most appropriate transfer / innovation funding routes.
The meeting comprised three main sessions:
a. A set of ‘overview' talks to introduce the technology, the organisations involved in the initiative and the landscapes of these organisations.
b. A set of ‘exemplar' presentations, primarily from industrial partners, which served to highlight where such transfers had been successful and
c. A breakout session, followed by a feedback session, to discuss the barriers to progress and the way forward.
Key points raised
Whilst there was intrinsic benefit in bringing together the diverse groups invited in order to promote networking and collaborations, there were also a number of key points identified from the day, including:
• Volumes: A key challenge in transferring technologies in this area is the discontinuity of volumes. Industrial MEMS are almost exclusively developed for volume markets and as such the NRE costs can be managed. Within Space, even if technologies are deployed in industrial space activities such as communication satellites, volumes are orders of magnitude lower and as such, NRE customisation costs become unsustainable.
• Diversity: MEMS is an extremely diverse technology, especially when considered with the integral supporting technologies. The benefits of MEMS in space can ONLY be realised if the integral supporting technologies are also included in any mechanisms for development / deployment.
• Qualification: The lack of a clear mechanism for qualification of MEMS (and supporting technologies) introduces an unbounded risk for many commercial organisations looking to exploit MEMS into Space.
• Consultation: The lack of availability of key consultants who had sufficient knowledge and experience of MEMS technologies, ESA, Space and industry, further increases the risk and challenge to transferring technologies.
• Collaboration: The majority of successful transfers have involved a collaboration of many parties, including academic and ESA partners. Any formalised process would have to include private, public and international partners.
• Existing programmes: Initiatives exist within ESA already for a number of areas where MEMS appear to offer elegant solutions. There are, however, still many areas where solutions are still elusive and indeed a number where there is little activity.
• Funding: There is limited clarity on how to fund the transfer of technologies into space programmes. Testing and evaluation of commercial MEMS and supporting technologies is key to their affordable exploitation.
• Intellectual Property: With many multi-party collaborations bringing many diverse elements of MEMS and supporting technologies to a programme, the IP proposal needs to be easy and straightforward. A detailed and protracted IP negotiation only serves to strongly inhibit transfer.
The workshop certainly demonstrated a need and an enthusiasm for relevant parties to meet, discuss and consider the issues of MEMS in Space and industry. It was clear that the economic opportunity for businesses to transfer MEMS technology into Space is severely hampered by ill defined technical risks. The existence of a consultancy which has expertise in both MEMS technologies and Space would mitigate some of these risks.
About the NanoKTN
The NanoKTN facilitates the transfer of knowledge and experience between industry and research, offering companies dealing in small-scale technology access to information on new processes, patents and funding as well as keeping up-to-date with industry regulation. The four broad areas that the NanoKTN focuses on are: Promoting and facilitating knowledge exchange, supporting the growth of UK capabilities, raising awareness of Nanotechnology, and providing thought leadership and input to UK policy and strategy. For more information about the NanoKTN, please visit www.nanoktn.com