One question that comes my way often is how can we explain what a “nanotechnology company” is? Secondly, what would they look for in a new hire in terms of education and technical skills?
To answer these, first it needs to be recognized that nanotechnology is interdisciplinary. This means that work related to micro and nanotechnologies uses ideas and concepts typically associated with several different fields of science and engineering. For an example, look up BioMEMS. Because nano is indeed interdisciplinary, many companies will hire teams of engineers from various backgrounds (often electrical, chemical, and mechanical) to work on nanotechnology related products.
In most cases that I have observed both through analysis and contact with industry, a “microsystems” or “nanotechnology” company will base its operations around a core set of technical competencies to develop their products.
To identify these competencies (and the skills a new hire may need), the Southwest Center for Microsystems Education has counted over 2700 companies within the United States alone with work on the micro and nanoscale and is in the process of compiling industry maps for all 50 states. See here for more details. I have been part of this effort.
From my analysis, most micro and nanoscale work performed in industry can fit into one of seven categories:
- Materials / Chemicals / Nanomaterials
- MEMS including Bio-MEMS, Microsensors, and Medical Devices
- Electronics / Electronic Components
- Optics and Photonics
- Research and Development / Laboratory Analysis Services
- Tools and Capital Equipment
Each has its unique technical competencies and approach to the development of commercial products, with unique skills and education requirements. A generalized description of each category is given below:
There has been work at the nanoscale within the fields of semiconductors and microelectronics for many years, just it has not been called nanotechnology. In fact, the feature sizes of many microelectronic devices are on the order of nanometers and are fabricated using combinations of advanced chemical and top down methods in cleanrooms. Employment may be found at chipmakers and other large semiconductor manufacturers. Understanding of semiconductor physics and experience in the fabrication of devices is desired for employment in this field.
Materials / Chemicals / Nanomaterials
Within nanotechnology, there is often overlap between chemistry, materials science, and biochemistry, especially with work related to nanoparticles and nanostructured materials. For example, many new drugs incorporate chemically synthesized nanoparticles to target specific diseases. The functionality of many engineered materials is also determined at the nanoscale. For this reason, this category encompasses companies that work across a variety of industries from composites to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. A background in chemistry, materials science, biochemistry, or chemical engineering and experience in a chemical laboratory are desired by employers in these fields.
MEMS including Bio-MEMS, Microsensors, and Medical Devices
MEMS stands for “microelectromechanical systems” which is broad and interdisciplinary itself. MEMS are widespread across many fields, enabling the development of wearable electronics and the tiny sensors that enable the internet of things. In, biotechnology mems and bio-MEMS enable many genomic and medical devices. Work related to MEMS requires an understanding of how devices function at the nanoscale, and how to engineer them and their fabrication process to maximize performance and output. MEMS, including bio-MEMS utilize many of the same fabrication techniques as semiconductors. Cleanroom processing experience is a plus.
Electronics / Electronic Components
This category is devoted to companies that use micro or nanotechnology enabled components to make functional electronic devices. Because of More’s Law, the size of transistors is decreasing, forcing many electronic components to shrink to the order of nanometers. Electronics assemblers and packaging companies are adapting to newer, smaller technologies. This category is differentiated from “Semiconductors” which stands for the creators of the electronic components themselves, working to engineer their properties at the nanoscale. A background in electronics engineering or assembly is ideal for employment in companies categorized under this field.
Research and Development / Laboratory Analysis Services
Companies with a heavy emphasis on research and development are often early-phase startups aiming to bring a new technology to maturity. Large commercial or government research facilities are included in this category. Also included are companies that contract analysis or laboratory services and technology incubators providing lab equipment to entrepreneurs aiming to develop new technologies. At large research facilities, a PhD in a technical field is often required to become a member of the technical staff. A Master’s degree and/or several years of industry experience may be required to become a process or development engineer. Smaller companies may need technicians to run lab tests.
Optics and Photonics
Optics and photonics covers the manipulation and control of light using nanoscience. Equipment produced by companies specializing in optics or photonics very often incorporate lasers and materials selected for their optical properties. Companies in this category may create specialized materials or devices that guide light “signals” or detect them. This category has overlap with semiconductors and tools and capital equipment because numerous electronic devices and microsensors make use of optics or photonics. Related employment may be found at many companies specializing in microdevices, including producers of medical devices, electronics, and specialized equipment for nano work. Prior experience working with optics either through employment or coursework is a plus for job seeking students.
Tools and Capital Equipment
This category covers the tools used in the research, development, and production of micro and nanotechnologies. These may include electron microscopes, optical spectroscopic equipment, or any machine tool used in the production of semiconductor devices. For micro and nanomanufacturing, the work must be performed at nanometer precision over millions of tiny devices. This requires specialized equipment and has led to an entire industry devoted to tools for micro and nanotechnology. Often, employment related to nanotechnology tools and capital equipment is found at specialized companies that build and repair them. Understanding of how to design, operate, and construct tools for micro and nanoscale work is desired by employers in this area.