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India gets smart to MEMS potential — To set up fabrication centre at Bangalore

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INDIA may have missed the silicon bus, but it is trying hard to make up with small, smart materials called MEMS — currently a multi-billion-dollar research pursuit across the globe.

The Government and industry will jointly set up the country's first fabrication centre for MEMS (micro-electronic mechanical systems) shortly, Dr V.K. Aatre, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, has announced here. The centre will most likely be located in Bangalore, which houses supporting defence and technology centres, Dr Aatre said at the three-day international conference on smart materials jointly organised by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Institute of Smart Structures & Systems here.

The MEMS centre will be a one-stop shop offering design, fabrication and packaging facilities besides access to expertise.

Several industries have shown interest in the centre and investments of Rs 100-150 crore are expected, said Dr Aatre, who is spearheading the smart materials drive in the country. He is also the Chairman of B-SMART, the recently formed Board for Smart Material Technologies, to promote industrial activity in this area.

After a couple of meetings with the industry, a committee from the IISc has been talking to CII, FICCI and Assocham, which are, in turn, identifying individual industries who would fund the initiative and get into MEMS-based production.

On a smaller scale, a mini-fabrication centre for MEMS will be set up at IISc here, with Government and industrial funding totalling some Rs 50 crore. The mini-MEMS centre will require Rs 15 crore to start off and IISc will provide some seed money and raise the rest from the industry.

Talks are on with a clutch of companies including Infosys, Honeywell, GE, BEL and Titan to rope them in as investors and users, sources told Business Line.

The mini-fabrication centre can be used by private industries and research institutes for prototyping, and also generate revenue for the institute.

MEMS-based technologies offer an exciting range of products in aerospace, automobile, telecommunication, biomedical implants, diagnostics, drug delivery, construction and structural monitoring.

According to Dr Aatre, they can range from small aircraft cabin noise control sensors to wearable insulin injectors and remote monitors of critical bridges and structures and have a $100-billion potential abroad. In India, the annual MEMS market size could be Rs 600 crore.

According to Dr A.R. Upadhya, Programme Director of the Rs 75-crore National Programme for Smart Materials (NPSM) under the Aeronautical Development Agency, India is five years behind its MEMS peers and it may be some more years before these products hit the market.

Ten devices under the NPSM are expected by next year-end but marketable products could be 3-5 years further.

In India, MEMS and smart materials will mainly be in use in the automotive sensors to monitor distance, temperature and fuel or as biomedical applications.

"We are just starting it," Dr Aatre said. "India is not used to generate technologies and this is the first attempt to seeding such technologies which can be absorbed as quickly as possible by the industry," he said.

Through the two initiatives, the industry is also getting exposed to possibilities with MEMS from half a dozen MEMS experts from overseas universities, including Dr V.K. Varadan of Penn State University, Dr Ajay Malshe of University of Arkansas, Dr S. Bhansali from Florida, and others from Australia and Japan.

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