While most of upstate New York’s manufacturing industries have been hard hit by the recession, computer and electronic product manufacturing has defied the trend. In 2008, the region boasted more than 250,000 high-tech industry jobs, up 9 percent from 2004. Nearly half were in the most advanced technology areas. According to a report by state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli last summer, “If these trends continue, computer and electronic equipment will be the number one product of upstate New York by 2013.”
At Binghamton University, an ambitious multi-component facility is playing a major role to support that trend. Launched in 2003, it’s called the Small Scale Systems Integration and Packaging Center, or S3IP. Do not misinterpret the word “small” in that title. In today’s electronics industry, “small” is a decidedly big deal.
To understand the S3IP’s importance, you first need to understand what “packaging” means in the industry. It does not refer to shipping or merchandising containers. Rather, it means the actual physical enclosures of the electronics products, the protective features of both component parts and end products. Covering a dizzying array of forms — from metals to molded plastics to liquid fillings, coatings and ceramics — electronics packaging is a discipline of immense significance.
“The nation is increasing its reliance on the development of higher-performance electronics in increasingly smaller packages,” says Bahgat Sammakia, director of the S3IP. “There is a great need for leading-edge research on the disciplines required for this type of engineering, and the S3IP is a critical participant in advancing these technologies and training the essential, educated workforce. The center brings together the federal and state governments, academia and industry to collaborate on new, transformational research on microelectronic systems that has broad national and global significance.”
Today’s electronics market demands more and more power in smaller and smaller spaces. And there is only one way to achieve that: increased packaging density and microchip integration levels.
Microchips, in a nutshell, are tiny electronic circuits. Often smaller than a penny, they may contain thousands of transistors.
Also known as integrated circuits, microchips are typically manufactured on extraordinarily thin, often highly flexible layers of semiconductor materials, crystalline solids that conduct electricity and can be electrically altered. Because they are inexpensive to produce, they have revolutionized the electronics industry over the past 25 years. Without them, modern digital products, such as computers and ever “smarter” cellular phones, wouldn’t exist as we know them. Packaging is about technologies that make those products simultaneously smaller and more durable.
“The S3IP is a consequence of electronics packaging,” says Mary Beth Curtin, associate director of the S3IP. “Given Binghamton’s history of excellence in microelectronics packaging, it was natural for the University to develop a center that could support that industry.”
The S3IP was launched as part of Binghamton’s strategic plan to develop multidisciplinary research at those interfaces where academic and research disciplines converge. Sammakia, a professor of mechanical engineering with extensive experience at IBM, is its founder and director.
“S3IP really sits at the center of the University’s research mission,” says Wayne E. Jones, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry. “By partnering with businesses — regionally, nationally and internationally — we can see how fundamental research can solve real-world problems. At the same time, the S3IP’s resources make it possible for partners to explore paradigm-shifting research, with long-term implications, that they might not tackle in tough economic times. The equipment in the Analytical and Diagnostic Laboratory alone creates a facility that can’t be replicated by every company and probably shouldn’t be. Binghamton can offer significant advantages for companies in terms of experience, expertise and equipment with economies of scale.”
Creation of the S3IP consolidated two discrete technology centers: the Integrated Electronics Engineering Center (IEEC), which had already been doing leading-edge packaging research since 1991, and the Center for Advanced Microelectronics Manufacturing (CAMM), a full-scale manufacturing facility capable of making all sorts of high-end products that no one else can produce. The Center for Autonomous Solar Power (CASP) and the Center for Energy Efficient Electronic Systems (E3S) were added later. All are supported by the University’s technology infrastructure, especially the Analytical and Diagnostics Laboratory, which enables the commercialization of microelectronics technologies.
Collectively, their aim is to help the regional electronics industry succeed. But they also produce extraordinary cross-disciplinary learning opportunities and help the S3IP’s partners create products that enhance people’s lives. Sammakia points to the work being done by the E3S. “Data centers use about 3 percent of all electricity consumed in the nation,” he says, “and it’s growing by 10 percent every year. Half of that energy is wasted. We are looking for opportunities to improve efficiency.” Each of the S3IP’s research programs is engaged in similarly significant research.
Since 1996, the constituent research initiatives of the S3IP have generated more than $700 million in economic impact in New York alone. So it wasn’t surprising when, four years ago, the S3IP was designated one of New York state’s Centers of Excellence. Focusing on cutting-edge technologies such as nanoelectronics, bioinformatics and information technology, the Centers of Excellence share the goal of encouraging rapid scientific breakthroughs and product commercialization.
“There was a time when our local economy was collapsing,” recalls New York Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell. But the Centers of Excellence offered a future. “I immediately saw a role for Binghamton University as a center for flexible electronics. In the history of this valley it’s a natural fit, and I argued for the funding.”
“Being designated as a Center of Excellence is a tremendous achievement for Binghamton,” says Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, who, along with Lupardo, nominated the S3IP for the designation. “It’s a testament to their innovation and talent. It’s a wonderful opportunity for them, their local business partners and for our community. The possibilities are really endless.”
What the S3IP offers companies is access to labs; diagnostic and production equipment that many would not have in their own facilities; literature and the broad scope of intellectual property gathered or produced by the center; and the expertise of a multidisciplinary team of 40 graduate students and 15 to 20 faculty researchers.
“Our relationship with the S3IP has been a very useful collaboration,” says Charles Becker, chief scientist for Micro and Nano Structures Technologies at GE’s Global Research facility in Niskayuna, N.Y. “We joined the IEEC in 2001, and since then we’ve collaborated on many projects. We’ve hired numerous Binghamton PhD and master’s students, mostly through the IEEC and CAMM. GE is constantly looking for high-quality people. We particularly appreciate the focus at Binghamton on training people in systems thinking. The candidates we get from Binghamton have integrated well into GE’s advanced research programs.”
If, as DiNapoli’s report projects, computer and electronic equipment will become Upstate’s leading product by 2013, Binghamton is right on track, training the workforce of the future.