A male technician works on a microchip
Martin Wolczyk / Adobe Firefly
2024-01-01 VDE dialog

VDE/VDI GMM: The heart of digitalization

The VDE/VDI Society of Microelectronics, Microsystems and Precision Engineering works with technologies that operate largely out of sight, but are essential to our digitalized world. One important aim of the society’s activities is to get young people interested in related subjects.

By Markus Strehlitz

They are often too small for the naked eye, and yet extremely powerful. They serve as both the heart and the brains of digitalization because they make visions come true and enable the major innovations of our age to do what they do. We're talking about the products and technologies explored by the VDE/VDI Society of Microelectronics, Microsystems and Precision Engineering (VDE/VDI GMM). “We look at interdisciplinary technologies that play a decisive role in many different areas of application,” explains Dr. Franz Auerbach, who has headed the GMM together with Prof. Amelie Hagelauer since the beginning of 2023. But what does that mean exactly? Everyone knows smartphones contain chips that make them such indispensable all-purpose devices. However, the exact chips that are used and how they are designed are things most users hardly give a second thought.

International events and promoting semiconductors

That’s perhaps unsurprising, since the technology is highly complex and far from easy to explain. Another reason is that, from the initial idea to a specification, circuit diagram, layout, and the finished product, the process of developing an integrated circuit is a laborious one that calls for numerous verification steps along the way. What’s more, the technologies and processes used by the companies that manufacture such chips are often subject to strict secrecy. This all means that GMM tends to serve up little in the way of hype issues that draw a great deal of media attention. Yet without the technologies GMM deals with, today’s trends would not exist. “Without microelectronics, everyone else might as well pack up and go home,” says Auerbach. “We're the enablers of all the applications people are talking about, whether it's the expansion of renewable energy, e-mobility or artificial intelligence.”

“In service of innovation”

Prof. Dr. Amelie Hagelauer
Hans-Jürgen Schmitz, Martin Wolczyk / Adobe Firefly (Composing)
2024-01-01 VDE dialog

Hidden electronics: How does the VDE/VDI Society of Microelectronics, Microsystems and Precision Engineering make its work visible, despite working with the tiniest components? We asked its deputy chair, Prof. Dr. Amelie Hagelauer. After all, not much works without microchips these days!

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This is a field that's subject to rapid developments, as GMM’s own history also reflects. The society emerged in 1996 as a platform for engineers, scientists and technical/scientific young talents working on applications for microelectronics. It was created through a merger of the VDE/VDI Society of Microelectronics (GME) and the VDE/VDI Society of Microtechnology and Precision Engineering (GMF). GMM, the society’s acronym since 2009, stands in German for microelectronics, microsystems and precision engineering. The new name reflects and promotes the importance of microsystem technology and its public visibility. “Having said that, 80% of our work can actually be described as microelectronics,” says Auerbach.

 The specialist society currently has around 7,500 members. Two-thirds of them come from the VDI, while the other third comprises VDE members. Those interested can volunteer to get involved in the GMM’s various committess or help organize programs and events. The GMM currently comprises 35 committees covering topics such as mounting, connector and printed circuit board technology; mechatronics; and various aspects of micro and nanoelectronics, such as semiconductor manufacturing equipment or chip design. The program committees, meanwhile, come up with topics and agendas for GMM events. The society organizes around ten such events a year, some of which have an international profile. The most important one is the MikroSystemTechnik Congress, which takes place every two years and is organized by the GMM together with Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In 2023 alone, there were over 500 participants and more than 200 presentations.

“The opportunity for so many experts to meet and share their ideas is priceless,” says GMM managing director Dr. Ronald Schnabel. Engaging with like-minded societies and associations is also important to the GMM itself, of course. That's why it holds joint events with the VDE ITG and VDE ETG, the industry association ZVEI and the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE), for example. “We're passionate about maintaining these ties,” says Schnabel.

The conversation isn't limited to specialists, however. Influencing policy is another of the GMM's clearly stated goals. At the moment, Schnabel describes his society’s main mission as “promoting the semiconductor industry”. The GMM thus brings its expertise to the table in studies, analyses and recommendations. Three position papers, for example, have explored the topic of “hidden electronics” in order to shine a light on important technologies that work in the background. The GMM’s hard work is already having an impact, says Schnabel. He believes his society's efforts are partly responsible for getting the European Chips Act passed and semiconductor factories sprouting up in Germany.

Student science competitions focusing on the practical

It goes without saying that the future technologies represented by the GMM rely on highly educated and enthusiastic specialists. This means that supporting the next generation is extremely important to GMM and the socieity is putting in a great deal of work in this area, Schnabel continues. He highlights the Competition of Students in Microsystems Applications (COSIMA), which forgoes setting a fixed theme each year. The only condition is that entries demonstrate the benefits of microsystem technology in everyday applications. The students have to demonstrate a working prototype, come up with a marketing concept and look for sponsors to fund their projects. “They have to behave like a small start-up,” explains Schnabel. The competition has produced actual start-ups, as well – Heat-it, for example, which has developed a product that users heat up using their smartphones to treat insect bites.

The GMM also participates in the renowned VDE competition INVENT a CHIP, where participants from grades 9 to 13 can present microchips they have designed themselves. This year’s winners were recently crowned at the 2023 MikroSystemTechnik Congress. “Through these competitions, we can get young people involved in VDE and microelectronics at an early stage and get them excited about studying the relevant subjects,” says Auerbach. Together with awards for already qualified scientists such as the Alfred Kuhlenkamp Prize and the GMM Prize, the recognition these competitions offer is hugely important to tackling the decline in student numbers and the shortage of specialists.

No technologies of the future without microelectronics

The next generation will find themselves dealing with new topics, and the GMM has its eyes on the future, as well. For Dr. Franz Auerbach, microelectronics will play an important role in sustainable practices and energy conservation. After all, digitalization consumes vast amounts of energy. The concept of green IT, for instance, involves making the technology itself less power hungry, such as by optimizing processor architecture. Microelectronics could also aid in developing energy-efficient solutions – with inverters based on semiconductors, for example. And even if they are just a small part of a bigger project, it's efforts at the microscopic level that sometimes have the biggest impact. Auerbach puts it in a nutshell: “While we can’t save the world on our own, without us, there's no chance.”

Markus Strehlitz is a freelance journalist and editor for VDE dialog.

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