New R&D funding support announced by the UK’s Innovative electronics Manufacturing Research Centre (IeMRC)

Circuit World

ISSN: 0305-6120

Article publication date: 11 May 2012



Goosey, M. (2012), "New R&D funding support announced by the UK’s Innovative electronics Manufacturing Research Centre (IeMRC)", Circuit World, Vol. 38 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

New R&D funding support announced by the UK’s Innovative electronics Manufacturing Research Centre (IeMRC)

Article Type: Industry news From: Circuit World, Volume 38, Issue 2

During October 2011, the UK’s IeMRC announced that it was awarding more than £1.5 million in funding to support five new research projects at key universities around the country. Following a recent call for proposals and an initial filtering stage, selected proposals were subjected to an international peer review process after which five projects were subsequently chosen to receive funding support. The successful proposals were from the universities of Bath, Birmingham, Coventry, Nottingham and Southampton. All of these new IeMRC-funded projects are closely engaged with industry in the development of new products, processes, industry practices and an increasingly valuable skills base that can support high value manufacturing in the UK. Launched in October 2004, the IeMRC supports research that is specifically aimed at meeting the future needs of the UK’s electronics industry.

The newly funded work that will be undertaken at Bath University focuses on helping companies manufacturing large infrastructure, high-value electronic systems that are facing the challenge of changing market structures. They are increasingly required to provide services and product service systems, as opposed to offering products in a development that has been described as “servitisation”. This leaves them with a high level of uncertainty due to the novelty of the process and the long-term nature of the services that must be provided. This uncertainty is intensified by global competition and the pressure for high productivity to secure competitive advantage. The aim of this new IeMRC supported project is to provide electronic product-service integrators with a tool to assist in the decision of contract pricing to win future design, manufacture and operations and support contracts for large infrastructure, high-value electronic systems. It is also expected to define a process for the facilitation of this support in the form of a decision matrix which includes the probability of winning a contract, the probability of making a profit and the expected value of this profit.

Birmingham University has an established reputation for its work on the high resolution resists that are used for patterning materials such as silicon. Silicon is relatively easy to produce and process using photolithography techniques and rapid progress in silicon micro-fabrication has led to the development of an increasingly diverse range of non-electronics micro and nano-products. Examples include micro-sensors and actuators, micro-fluidic systems and self-cleaning surfaces. To date, micro and nano-fabrication has been completely dominated by techniques and materials initially developed for silicon. However, the component industry is pushing to sub-micron feature sizes and is limited by optical resolution. In particular, applications such as metal oxide on glass patterning are of significant interest to companies in this area and would greatly benefit from enhanced resolution and accuracy. It has proved extremely challenging to adapt established micro-fabrication methods to poor conductors, such as glass and GaN. Electron Beam Lithography (EBL) is particularly well suited to high value/low volume nano-device manufacture but, for glass and GaN, which are very poor conductors, the use of EBL leads to problems as the electrons in the beam cause substrate charging and distortion of the lithography pattern. The IeMRC-funded project at Birmingham University will create new high speed and high resolution electron beam resists that are also conductive. This will prevent charging related pattern distortion and the new resists will enable significant advances in electroforming on glass and GaN manufacturing. They will also find use in diamond electronics and plastic nano-patterning.

The UK electronics industry is dominated by SMEs and the manufacturing processes they use must become more cost effective and efficient if they are to compete with the low cost economies of the world. An underpinning technology within the electronics industry is the requirement to metallise dielectric materials to form conductive tracks and interconnections on a range of materials such as PCBs, RFID tags and plastics. One of the most common methods of metallisation is electroless plating, which utilizes precious metals. However, these are problematic in terms of expense, scarcity and resource efficiency. The R&D costs associated with developing new metallisation processes are also significant and the large corporate suppliers are reluctant to invest in developing “precious metal-free” metallisation processes. There is therefore a gap between what is required by SMEs and what is provided by their suppliers. The research programme that the IeMRC is supporting at Coventry University (in collaboration with Loughborough University) will seek to fill this gap by producing low cost metallisation processes that are applicable to the high value electronic manufacturing sector. The project will functionalise copper nanoparticles (CuNP) by attaching molecules to modify their surface properties. This functionalisation will enable them to attach to a range of substrates to act as a catalytic seed layer for electroless metallisation and to be a replacement for the more expensive palladium. In this project the functionalised CuNP will also be utilized as a conductive film for the “direct” electroplating of through holes and vias of PCBs. In addition, the project brings together two successful groups from the IeMRC community in the Sonochemistry Centre at Coventry and Loughborough University.

Power electronics is a £70 billion direct global market, growing at a rate of 11.7 per cent per annum and is a key thematic area underpinning much of the IeMRC’s work. It is essential to all future sustainable energy scenarios and is thus a critical technology for a large proportion of UK industry. Despite this importance, there is increasing evidence that many power electronic devices and systems are unsuited to the stringent demands of energy and transport applications. For example, offshore wind farms and electric vehicles, where unpredictable, fluctuating loads and exposure to widely varying environmental conditions present a particularly challenging environment. Reliability design methods applied to power electronic modules are currently unable to capture the complex nature of such loads and additionally, do not account for the micro-structural evolution of bonding and interconnect materials during degradation, which further restricts their application. Resulting designs thus tend to be conservative, leading to high capital costs and low confidence in predictions of in-service life. The aim of the IeMRC project being funded at Nottingham University is to extend physics-of-failure-based wear-out models and associated robustness design and health management methodologies to meet the requirements of power electronics in future transport and energy systems. The project will commence with the development of damage mechanics based models for key bonding and interconnect technologies that include the effects of micro-structural changes, for example, due to thermal exposure. These new damage models will be incorporated into time-domain physics-of-failure models which can accurately reflect the influence of arbitrary loading. A risk-based approach to reliability prediction will take account of uncertainties in the manufacturing processes, including material properties and geometry, etc. Nottingham will also enhance its fusion-based prognostics approach for power electronic assemblies to include the latest physics of failure models to monitor power module material degradation and remaining useful life, both during qualification testing and in the field.

Electrical contacts are often the weakest link in electrical and electronic systems and, as engineering systems become increasingly complex, with ever greater numbers of embedded electronics, sensors and actuators, this issue is becoming more important. There is thus a growing opportunity for innovative solutions using emerging material systems combined with innovative design approaches stemming from a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms determining contact performance. The research project being supported at Southampton University is focused on low current electro-mechanical (EM) switching devices, which are core to a wide range of systems. The key advantages of EM devices over solid state devices are electrical isolation, lower losses, smaller volume, lower cost and higher current handling capability per unit volume. The new project is focused on Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) relay devices where the requirement for a large number of switching cycles with minimal interface wear or degradation is particularly demanding. A solution to this problem has the potential to have a profound impact on a range of electrical and electronic applications, for example, in consumer electronics as power control devices to extend battery life or in RF MEMS switching. The project will investigate new composite surfaces and will include a full investigation of their physical properties. Understanding of the contact and impact mechanics and the conduction mechanisms (both thermal and electrical) will allow the optimisation of these surfaces. Optimisation will also enable new manufacturing processes to be established and applied in the manufacturing of MEMS switching devices.

The five projects being supported by the IeMRC, and briefly outlined above, will strengthen the IeMRC’s overall portfolio of research. It is expected that the outcomes of this research will ultimately offer real benefits to the UK’s electronics industry. The IeMRC is planning to announce one more call for proposals within its current round of funding and this is likely to take place during the first part of 2012. Further information about the IeMRC, its work and related activities can be found at:

Martin GooseyIeMRC Industrial Director,October 2011

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