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  New Motown MEMS lab will steer Delphi beyond the automobile

For Delphi, the new Detroit lab is part of a strategy to migrate its MEMS technologies from auto bodies to human bodies.

Mar 19, 2003 - A state-of-the-art lab for commercial development of MEMS and microsystems opened Tuesday at Detroit'sWayne State University with the help of Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Corp., which will use the space to adapt its sensor technologies to biomedicine and other markets.

The facility is part of the Smart Sensors and Integrated Microsystems (SSIM) program at the University's College of Engineering and operates under the direction of Professor Greg Auner. It includes 4,000 square feet of new Class 10 and 100 clean room space in addition to four other lab spaces. Delphi donated about $7 million worth of equipment to make the SSIM expansion possible. The donations and modifications to existing equipment have moved the lab to 6-inch wafer capability.

While its projects may sound like science fiction – work is currently under way on a bra with acoustic sensors that could detect breast cancer at an earlier stage than MRI technology, robotic surgery tools and retinal and cortical implants – the new lab is all about expediting real-world commercialization and is intended to make Wayne State a one-stop shop for large corporations and startups involved in MEMS and microsystems development.

"If you can imagine a small company … that wants to do research with large batches and all the problems with that," Auner said. "We would go up to production from the standpoint of them being able to do all the feasibility and parameters that they would need." Previously, Auner said, industrial or institutional partners would go elsewhere or build their own facilities for the final phase of development.

For Delphi, the lab is part of a strategy to migrate its MEMS technologies from auto bodies to human bodies. In 2002, Delphi announced plans to branch out beyond its traditional automotive business and changed its name from Delphi Automotive Systems to Delphi Corp. Within the year, it created a new markets group, under which it formed a medical systems division.

"Delphi's original focus was on the development of new and extended technology for the auto industry," said Andrew Brown, Delphi's director of engineering, at the lab's opening ceremonies. "But the same sensors we invested for the auto industry have significant applications in other aspects of life, including biomedicine."

Brown specifically pointed out an opportunity to develop sensors for low-pressure applications, such as dialysis, respiratory and drug delivery tube sets and equipment. He said Delphi sensors that measure linear and angular acceleration, angular rate and mass airflow – all of which are used in automotive – could also play a role in medical devices.

"In a way, it's one world," Auner said. Once you have competencies in materials and micromachining, he said, "you can adapt them to different structures." And, subsequently, different applications and different industries.

SSIM will work directly with Delphi's research labs, a central R&D organization that serves all of the Delphi groups and divisions and consists of about 100 scientists and engineers, Brown said afterward. Four or five Delphi researchers will work on site at Wayne State.

Brown said the lab is likely to draw similar interest from others. "The fact that the laboratory at Wayne State has the capability of producing 6-inch wafers instead of 4-inch gives them a capability that not every university has," he said. "Ford, Bosch, Visteon, General Motors can go to Wayne State and do their development through to the prototype stages.

Auner acknowledged that's the strategy and said his group is experienced working with competitors. "It’s not as difficult as you might think," he said. "In general, a lot of the R&D is not top secret, but the recipes might be more confidential. … We're pretty good at keeping things separated."

In addition to Delphi, SSIM partners currently include Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Children's Hospital of Michigan, Karmanos Cancer Institute and the Ligon Research Center at the Kresge Eye Institute.

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