engineer with chip

A microsystems engineer could...

Help a child with cerebral palsy walk by creating an internal medication pump for anti-muscle-spasm drugs. Mom and daughter on a walk Develop a set of microphones so small they can easily be implanted in almost any device for secret audio surveillance. Man holding microchip
Create sensors that can detect when a spot is empty or full and relay that information to parking attendants. green parking abailability light on ceiling of garage Save lives by creating a car airbag system that folds up compactly yet detects impact and deploys correctly. Airbag deployed
Find out more...

Key Facts & Information

Overview Have you ever seen a car-crash safety test? The airbags always deploy just in time to save the test dummy, which is good news for those of us who travel in cars! What makes the airbag deploy properly? A tiny microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) device called an accelerometer. MEMS devices are used in many applications, from inkjet printer cartridges to neural probes. Typically 1 micrometer (µm) to 1 millimeter (mm) in dimension, MEMS devices require special techniques to make. Microsystems engineers apply their knowledge of electronic and mechanical engineering theory and methods, as well as manufacturing technologies, to design and develop MEMS devices. In this case, great things come in extremely small packages.
Key Requirements Good mechanical skills, detail-oriented work habits, ability to focus, excellent math and analytical skills, precise lab skills
Minimum Degree Master's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Biology, chemistry, physics, geometry, algebra II, calculus; if available, computer science, applied technology
Median Salary
Microsystems Engineer
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Little or No Change (-2% to 2%)
  • Read about Dr. Yu-Chong Tai from Caltech MEMS Laboratory whose research is to develop MEMS devices using both micro- and nanotechnology.
  • Do you know what neural probes are? These devices are used to extract information from the human brain. Dr. Oliver Paul and Dr. Patrick Ruther are microsystems or MEMS researchers working on this biological application of MEMS devices.
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

Microsystems engineers enter the occupation with a master's degree in electrical or mechanical engineering, but some research positions require a PhD. Attending courses and professional conferences enable the microsystems engineer to keep current with rapidly changing technology.

Education and Training

The minimum degree required for an entry-level position as a microsystems engineer is a master's degree in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or physics. However, many employers accept candidates with a bachelor's degree and three to five years of work experience in microsystems engineering. A PhD is essential for engineering faculty positions and some research and development programs, but it is not required for the majority of entry-level engineering jobs. Many experienced engineers obtain graduate degrees in engineering or business administration to learn new technology and broaden their education.

Other Qualifications

Microsystems engineers should be creative, inquisitive, analytical, and detail oriented. They should be able to work as part of a team and to communicate well, both orally and in writing. Communication abilities are becoming increasingly important as engineers interact more frequently with specialists in a wide range of fields outside engineering.

Microsystems engineers who work for the federal government usually must be U.S. citizens. Some engineers working for defense contractors need to hold a security clearance.

Watch this detailed video to learn about the various applications for microsystems and MEMS devices and how they are fabricated.

Nature of the Work

Microsystems engineers apply the principles of electronic and mechanical systems to develop new microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), devices, and novel applications of MEMS devices. Some applications of MEMS devices include crash sensors, vehicle exhaust sensors, pressure sensors for vehicle fuel-injection systems, micro-mirrors in video projection systems, inkjet printer cartridges, and biosensors that can fit into a blood vessel and measure the levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and blood pH. Microelectromechanical systems are used in the automotive, aerospace, and health-care industries, and in industrial, consumer, and telecommunications products.

The typical microsystem consists of microelectronics, the brains of the system, and microelectromechanical systems that act as the eyes and arms of the system. Microelectromechanical systems are built using thermal, magnetic, electromechanical, fluidic, and optical devices like sensors and actuators. Sensors are devices that perceive useful information and actuators are devices that act upon the perceived information by manipulating themselves or other mechanical devices. These devices can range in size from less than the width of a human hair to about 1 mm. Microsystems or MEMS can sense and control the environment in which they are placed.

MEMS technology is an extension of integrated-circuit technology, and microsystems engineers must be knowledgeable in fabrication techniques such as microlithography, chemical and plasma etching, vapor deposition, and electroplating. Because MEMS devices are moving devices, the microsystems engineer must have a working knowledge of materials science and how materials act under fabrication and test conditions. Microsystems engineers design MEMS and MEMS devices using computer-aided design and modeling software. They develop and are responsible for every aspect of MEMS manufacturing processes and recommend equipment upgrades. In addition, they troubleshoot equipment and make decisions about non-conforming product. Since microsystems engineers work in integrated circuits fabrication laboratories, they write the training and operating documents that laboratory personnel use. They also develop methods for testing MEMS and MEMS devices and perform failure analysis.

Work Environment

Most microsystems engineers work in office buildings and laboratories where devices and wafers are fabricated. Many microsystems engineers work a standard 40-hour week. At times, deadlines or design standards may bring extra pressure to a job, requiring microsystems engineers to work longer hours.

On the Job

  • Conduct harsh environmental testing, accelerated aging, device characterization, or field trials to validate devices, using inspection tools, testing protocols, peripheral instrumentation, or modeling and simulation software.
  • Validate fabrication processes for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), using statistical process control implementation, virtual process simulations, data mining, or life testing.
  • Conduct analyses addressing issues such as failure, reliability, or yield improvement.
  • Conduct experimental or virtual studies to investigate characteristics and processing principles of potential MEMS technology.
  • Conduct or oversee the conduct of prototype development or microfabrication activities to ensure compliance to specifications and promote effective production processes.
  • Create schematics and physical layouts of integrated MEMS components and packaged assemblies consistent with process, functional, and package constraints.
  • Develop formal documentation for MEMS devices, including quality assurance guidance, quality control protocols, process control checklists, data collection, and reporting.
  • Develop or validate product-specific test protocols, acceptance thresholds, or inspection tools for quality-control testing and performance measurement.
  • Develop or validate specialized materials characterization procedures, such as thermal withstand, fatigue, notch sensitivity, abrasion, and hardness tests.
  • Devise MEMS production methods, such as integrated circuit fabrication, lithographic electroform modeling, and micromachining.
  • Evaluate and select materials, fabrication methods, joining methods, surface treatments, or packaging to ensure acceptable processing, performance, cost, and availability.
  • Investigate characteristics, such as cost, performance, and process capability, of potential MEMS device designs, using simulation and modeling software.
  • Operate or maintain MEMS fabrication and assembly equipment, such as handling, singulation, assembly, wire-bonding, soldering, and package sealing.
  • Propose product designs involving MEMS technology, considering market data or customer requirements.
  • Refine final MEMS design to optimize design for target dimensions, physical tolerances, and processing constraints.
  • Conduct acceptance tests, vendor-qualification protocols, surveys, audits, corrective-action reviews, or performance monitoring of incoming materials and components to ensure conformance to specifications.
  • Create or maintain formal engineering documents, such as schematics, bill of materials, components and materials specifications, and packaging requirements.
  • Demonstrate miniaturized systems that contain components such as microsensors, microactuators, or integrated electronic circuits fabricated on silicon or silicon carbide wafers.
  • Develop and communicate operating characteristics or performance experience to other engineers and designers for training or new product development purposes.
  • Develop and file intellectual property and patent disclosure or application documents related to MEMS devices, products, and systems.
  • Develop and verify customer documentation, such as performance specifications, training manuals, and operating instructions.
  • Develop or implement MEMS processing tools, fixtures, gauges, dies, molds, and trays.
  • Identify, procure, or develop test equipment, instrumentation, and facilities for characterization of MEMS applications.
  • Manage new product introduction projects to ensure effective deployment of MEMS devices and applications.
  • Plan or schedule engineering research or development projects involving MEMS technology.

Companies That Hire Microsystems Engineers

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