The development of the deep reactive ion etching process by Franz Laermer and Andrea Urban revolutionized the micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) industry by enabling cost-effective production and proliferation of devices such as the tiny sensors found in automobile air bag and anti-skidding systems, as well as in today’s smartphones and laptop computers. Patented in 1994, the process allowed for precise manufacturing of complex structures in high-quality mono- and poly-crystalline silicon compared to existing anisotropic wet etching methods. Considered a major turning point in the commercialization of MEMS technology, the process enabled the design of more sophisticated and compact devices but at lower cost. It helped overcome the cost barrier to widespread use of silicon accelerometers for air bag sensors, and yaw-rate sensors for car stability control, making these important safety features accessible to more than just high-end automobiles. The process also made possible new generations of affordable sensors used in mobile phone applications, hard-disk protection in laptops, and human-gesture recognition in video game controllers. The technology has also impacted MEMS devices in healthcare, such as DNA chips and disposable blood pressure sensors. Dr. Laermer and Ms. Urban were also instrumental in guiding Bosch to license the process to other manufacturers instead of tightly guarding the intellectual property. This helped in the tremendous growth and commercial success of the MEMS industry, with large manufacturers using the process for their own MEMS-based devices and enabling the start-up of many smaller companies to provide contributions to MEMS technology. The pair was honored with the 2007 European Inventor of the Year Award (Industry Category) for their work on and subsequent success of the deep reactive ion etching process.
Ms. Urban is a senior expert with the Engineering Sensor Process Technology Department, Robert Bosch GmbH, Reutlingen, Germany. Urban was awarded the 2014 IEEE Jun-ichi Nishizawa Medal with Laermer.