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Nanomanufacturing Testbeds: Unique Opportunities for Industrial-Academic-Government Collaborations

Written by: 
Jeff Morse, Ph.D.

From Lab to Product
Testbeds provide a critical platform to bridge the gap between laboratory innovation and product implementation.
Researchers involved in a broad range of science and technology enabled through nanoscale materials and phenomenon are reporting discoveries and innovations with increasing frequency.  As these breakthroughs involve academia, industry, and government researchers, the next step in many cases is to understand the range of applications that would benefit from the research results and who the stakeholders would be.

While the applications and benefits may be obvious, bringing a technological innovation to the product level is not always as straight forward as developing a business plan or partnering with an industry leader. Typically the innovation must be further developed such that design, manufacturing, reliability, and yield issues are addressed to achieve the necessary economy of scale for a competitive product. In this context, inherent risk is involved that may add capital expense or scaled performance limitations that detract from the benefits provided by the innovation.

These concerns in general are not unique to nanotechnology and nanomanufacturing, although some considerations are. These involve the existing infrastructure, capabilities, and tools enabling further investigation into and development of the technologies being reported by research laboratories worldwide. One model that addresses these issues is the testbed.  Testbeds provide a critical platform to bridge the gap between laboratory innovation and product implementation and to better understand the financial and societal benefits provided therein.

The goal of a nanomanufacturing testbed is to translate outstanding fundamental research on nanoscale science and engineering to realizable manufacturing processes and devices. Most academic research centers include testbed programs at some level, as do government laboratories, which may have a focus toward mission-critical applications. While some industry sectors do sustain testbed programs, their focus is limited to core products and may encounter competitive entanglements limiting the broader exchange of information to the community of interest. In these instances, the testbed may specify a common goal, such as demonstrating the feasibility and scalability of a process or device concept in order to generate metrics through which demonstrable performance results can be measured and compared. Successful testbeds ultimately rely on input from stakeholders regarding important parameters, issues, and concerns specific to their manufacturing platforms, thereby enabling direct evaluation of new processes and device technologies with present state-of-the-art.

Extending the utility of a testbed requires a partnership between government, industry, and academia to identify the key contributors to and beneficiaries of such programs. The importance of this partnership varies depending on the maturity, complexity, and existing infrastructure for the technology under study. For example, consider the semiconductor industry over the years when industrial consortia had been established in collaboration with government and academic organizations to investigate and develop new capability for the entire industry. In most cases the technology being validated was a new tool or capability that would replace existing tools with a significant foothold in the industry. As such, the commitment of long term, industry-driven partnerships clearly demonstrates the benefit of the testbed program.

As nanotechnology is applied to the manufacturing challenges of the future, implementation issues become significantly more complex; many industries face the prospect of establishing partial or completely new infrastructures to extend their manufacturing capability for advanced products. In this context, testbed programs provide the additional benefit of cost sharing the expense for feasibility demonstration and scaleup.

Over the coming months the NNN plans to highlight testbed programs around the United States, providing an overview of the goals, strategy, and outcomes of each. We will also seek input and feedback on these programs so that the appropriate information and results are shared with stakeholders, who may evaluate the technologies and further proliferate the capability for specific application areas. With this goal in mind, the NNN invites contributions of ideas, examples, and outcomes from testbed programs relevant to nanomanufacturing, and will work with the community at large to feature these through our online information clearinghouse, InterNano.

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