Each of these items is at the heart of real-life research projects that involve research faculty associated with Binghamton University's Integrated Electronics Engineering Center and both fall in the realm of infotonics, the field resulting from the combined disciplines of photonics and microsystems.
In the case of the navigable "pill," BU researchers will be performing the mechanical analysis and testing of a prototype being developed by the City University of New York. The nanometer-thick thin film for lenses will improve on existing organic coatings through the development of a bilayer film, with a moisture retardant inorganic layer. It is the focus of a cross-disciplinary BU team including chemists Wayne Jones and Scott Oliver and mechanical engineers Junghyun Cho and Bahgat Sammakia. Both projects are both funded by the Infotonics Technology Center, a not-for-profit consortium of 20 universities and three major New York state optical companies: Eastman Kodak, Corning Incorporated, and Xerox. Binghamton researchers know that small-scale electronics manufacturing means big business. The range of research support and reliability testing services provided by the IEEC has attracted some of the country's largest electronics companies, including IBM, ADI, and GE Corporate Research, as well as regional companies such as Universal Instruments, Lockheed Martin and British Airways Electronics - to the center's membership roles.
Even while maintaining its ongoing commitment to support traditional electronics manufacturing, the IEEC's move to small-scale electronics manufacturing research is part of its major mission to help the United States regain pre-eminence in the electronics industry and to create and sustain regional jobs in electronics packaging. It's a big time challenge that will rely heavily on small-scale solutions according to Bahgat Sammakia, who has led the IEEC, a state Center for Advanced Technology, for the last four years.
"There is no question that electronics manufacturing in the United States and worldwide is changing," Sammakia said. "Many jobs are leaving the country and will not come back. Whenever a product becomes a very straightforward commodity that can be manufactured anywhere, it will be manufactured elsewhere."
That cost-based reality creates a "change or perish" environment for the US electronics industry. Cheaper off-shore labor has led not only to a steady decline in traditional US electronics manufacturing jobs, but also to the accompanying loss of revenue to sustain research and development critical to the development of next-generation products.
Without the availability of next-generation products, companies stand little chance of survival in today's competitive and technology-hungry marketplace, Sammakia said.
With electronics consumers most interested in buying smaller and smaller devices with more and more functionality, research that spawns and supports the development and manufacture of such products is a crucial niche university-based research centers such as the IEEC need to fill, he said.
"The advantage for companies to stay in the United States is not going to be for lower cost manufacturing, it's going to be for advanced technology."
That means that as part of its standing commitment to foster development of the US electronics industry, the IEEC needs to move into new areas where micro- and nanotechnologies are the clear wave of the future, he said. These areas will be driven by new development in small-scale electronics, including microelectric mechanical systems or MEMS, optical MEMS, known as MOEMS, and nanostructured materials.
"All of which requires a very different infrastructure than we have today, both from the research and the manufacturing perspective," Sammakia said. "The infrastructure we have today is suitable for objects that are as small as tens of microns, where a micron is 10 -6 meters. The nanostructure scale we are moving to is tens of nanometers, or 10 -9 meters, so we are talking about three orders of magnitude smaller."
Though perspective at the nanometer scale can be hard to come by, if you figure that the old standby for size comparisons, the human hair, is 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers in width, you'll have some idea what microelectronics are really all about.
Moving to small scale creates a host of new challenges for electronics researchers and manufacturers, including the need for cleaner more controlled environments, Sammakia said. At this scale, an errant dust particle can completely obliterate from view the elements researchers are most trying to look at.
"The good news" Sammakia noted, "is that an assembly line may require considerably less space than a traditional assembly line."
Working at this scale also requires vibration-free facilities and significantly more accurate instrumentation as well as a willingness to deal with change. While basic physics are understood at the nanostructure scale, materials and structures can behave completely differently at small scale than they do at large scale, and a defect that could be ignored at the micron level, probably will not be tolerable at nanometer scale, Sammakia said. It's likely that even the most basic assumptions about how materials behave will need to be rethought.
"When we model things at the large scale we tend to ignore some effects and consider only the ones we feel are relevant," he noted. "When we change scales, these assumptions are not good anymore. We have to look at the behavior of materials and structures in a completely fresh way. So it really requires not just a new physical infrastructure, but also a new intellectual infrastructure.
All these changes contribute to a stunning paradigm shift in the electronics industry. Ironically, the case of the photonics industry, which focuses on the manufacture of devices that rely on laser, fiber optics, lenses, mirrors and optical sensors for detecting, capturing, managing and manipulating information associated with light, helps to illuminate the issue.
Whereas the costs of packaging account for only about 10 to 20 percent of the total cost of producing a traditional silicon electronic device, photonics packaging accounts for about 60 to 80 percent of the total cost of a photonics device.
"Transmitting digital information in the form of light signals is faster, cheaper and more secure," Sammakia said. "But packaging is expensive because assembly processes are not mature."
That's because although the manufacture of silicon devices as been honed to a high-yield, high-throughput, and highly automated process in the past decade, photonic device assembly, which is in its infancy, is by and large a time-consuming manual process.
"Somebody's sitting there manually moving two micron-sized wires until they get a good signal, and then they basically try to glue these cables together without losing the signal. It's very time and labor intensive," Sammakia said.
Sammakia recognizes that small scale is going to be the big deal in electronics in the future and that the shift offers US researchers like those in the IEEC an important window of opportunity to enhance their research position.
"Nobody really has the complete infrastructure yet. I think whoever develops this set of capabilities, both physical and intellectual, is going to have a lot of opportunities to conduct world-class research," he said.
It also significantly improves the likelihood that their work will have a major economic impact.
Full membership in IEEC costs about $60,000 per year and gives companies access to the center's research capabilities, including the expertise of student and faculty researchers, diagnostic equipment, literature, laboratories and the broad scope of intellectual property gathered or produced by the center. With its full-members and more than 50 partners at lesser participating or associate member levels, the IEEC annually contributes $30 million to the economic base of the Southern Tier of New York.