It's Time for a Nanoelectronics Quality Standard

Nanoelectronics products are coming. Are we ready to create the rules to ensure their successful development?


Photo: Alwyn Cooper/iStockphoto

The last major revolution in electronics design was the development of solid-state microelectronics technology. This leap led to integrated circuits and fostered the information age. To facilitate the promise of microelectronics, the U.S. Department of Defense in concert with the producer and user communities, developed a standardized approach to product quality, testing, and acceptance.

For more than two decades, MIL-STD-883 and MIL-M-38510 were the universally accepted standards for the manufacturing, inspection, testing, and delivery of hybrid microcircuits. Today, we are on the edge of the next great change. Nanoelectronics is a subset of the field known as nanotechnology. It is loosely defined by the White House subcommittee that coordinates the National Nanotechnology Initiative, as the purposeful creation of structures 100 nanometers in size and smaller, where a nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter.

We do not have the luxury to remain passive and wait for the "other guy" to do the job.

With investment by government agencies worldwide expected to exceed US $3.5 billion, this technology promises to revolutionize the electronics industry, spawn new product families, and change the way products are designed and manufactured. The first nanoelectronics components are expected to be in production in a few years, and these could cause silicon-based technologies to become as obsolete as the vacuum tube.

Significantly, nanoelectronics fabrication and manufacturing happens at the molecular level, and here the physics of nanoparticles is often very different than that of the same materials in larger specimens. In addition, millions if not billions of the nanoscale components will need to be produced at one time. To accomplish this, product quality must be kept at levels heretofore unattainable, and the potential impact on the producer's ability to reliably deliver compliant products is daunting.

As we enter the nanoscale world, two things become clear. The product is too small for us to measure directly many characteristics without advanced microscopy, and the divide between product and process is blurred to the point that we may not be able to examine one without the other. These and other unresolved challenges call for a rethinking of today's quality assurance paradigm when addressing nanoelectronics. A new family of process controls, instrumentation, and criteria that will facilitate compliant, reliable, and cost-effective production is now required.

It is imperative that a high degree of standardization be developed in the measurement of product compliance and functionality. Whether the products are used as is or as components of more complex products, acceptability must be measured the same way with the same instrumentation. Data resulting from the acceptance process must be recorded with standard metrics that are easily comparable across production lots and suppliers. This criterion makes it mandatory that an industrywide acceptance standard for screening, testing, and verification of nanoscale products be developed.

The Department of Defense (DoD), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC), or the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) must take the lead in this endeavor. Whichever becomes the agency of choice in the development of nanoelectronics products testing and acceptance specifications, the final rules must be universally accepted by the producers and end users of products, as well as the member communities of the other standards-generating organizations.

The electronics industry, in both defense and commercial applications, will see the first nanoelectronics-based products within the next two years and is expected to see an explosion of applications within ten years. The timeline to develop and implement the new techniques, criteria, and instrumentation is short. We do not have the luxury to remain passive and wait for "the other guy" to do the job. In the United States, it will take the combined efforts of the DoD, the electronics industry, and the major research universities to pull it off.

To ultimately create a set of product standards that can be accepted worldwide is the real objective. But we have to get started now. Under the umbrella of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a consortium must be formed within the next six months to begin a process that should take no more than two years to complete. We need to form a small, representative group to begin the process early in 2006.

Time is of the essence, and we must work as a team to create the infrastructure that will facilitate the design, production, and delivery of our nanoelectronics-based products of the rapidly approaching future.

About the Author

Bernard L. Rue is the Vice President of the Operations Consulting Company, LLC and as vice chairman of the IEEE Coastal Los Angeles Nanotechnology Network, he is an active advocate for the development of nanotechnology in the electronics manufacturing community.

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