Featured Engineer

Interview with Karl F. Böhringer

Karl F. Böhringer

Karl F. Böhringer - Professor at University of Washington

How did you get into electronics/ engineering and when did you start?

The first PCs and Macs came out when I was in high school and I was one of the first students who figured out how to program them. I studied computer science and then moved to robotics, microrobotics, and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).

What are your favorite hardware tools that you use?

In my research, we need a cleanroom with microfabrication equipment. Lithography tools create high-resolution patterns on silicon wafers. Deep reactive ion enhanced (DRIE) plasma etchers can create three-dimensional structures in silicon. Our cleanroom has about fifty advanced tools for all sorts of microfabrication.

What are your favorite software tools that you use?

I use the computer mostly for writing papers and communicating with students and colleagues, but when I do some more scientific work then I like writing Mathematica code to simulate my microsystems or to solve a computational problem.

What is the hardest/trickiest bug you have ever fixed?

It may not have been the hardest bug, but just recently I wrote some software to simulate a new kind of microfluidic device that my students and I have been developing. The simulation produced exactly what I wanted to see. By coincidence, one of my students noticed that it produced this result even if the inputs did not make any physical sense. It’s hard to find a bug if it always gives you the result you want.

What is on your bookshelf?

Souvenirs from my travels and visits at my colleagues all over the world. Most technical writing that I read is available online, but I do have also some books on my office shelf.

Do you have any tricks up your sleeve?

Despite the fact that my research is mostly in hardware, I think I am a good programmer. I can make Mathematica do anything I need.

What has been your favorite project?

I’ve been working with arrays of microactuators for a long time, and they are still fun. I built my first batch of devices when I was a grad student at Cornell. Later, I met colleagues at Stanford who had a different design that worked very well. We collaborated on turning these devices into a “smart surface” that could transport small objects and position them precisely without sensor feedback. Later, we turned the microactuator chip upside down and it became a walking microrobot with more than a thousand legs. This robot is still sitting in my office now, ready to go anytime.

Do you have any note-worthy engineering experiences?

I have received quite a few awards, but I was particularly happy to be elected as one of the two co-chairmen of the IEEE MEMS conference, which is one of the best scientific events in our field of research. I like my colleagues very much and among them, there are many friends.

Do you have an experiential stories you would like to share?

We deal with many dangerous chemicals and equipment in our lab, so uneventful days are the best experience for me. I am glad that we have not had any significant incidents in a long time – let’s hope that it stays that way.

What are you currently working on?

I have several research projects in the area of microsystems. For one, I am interested in new techniques to do efficient assembly of very large numbers of very small components. If you have to handle millions of tiny parts, a conventional robot will just take too long. Instead, we are developing massively parallel self-assembly techniques that can achieve similar or better precision than robots. I am also working on various biomedical microdevices.

Can you tell us about your work as the Director of the University of Washington’s Microfabrication Facility?

As the faculty director, I work with my staff and with the university administration to make sure that our Microfabrication Facility provides good service to our “customers” and continuously improves its capabilities. This means communicating with our users, who may be students, university scientists, or industrial researchers. Some PR effort is necessary to get the work out about our great capabilities. It also involves fund-raising for new equipment. Safety is a great concern for us, since we work with many hazardous chemicals and equipment in our facility. Luckily, I have great staff and supportive people in the administration who make my life as director easier.

What direction do you see your business heading in the next few years?

We have ambitious plans for the coming years. We are getting ready for a complete renovation of our facility and a merger with a neighboring lab. Once we are done, which will take more than a year, we will have a truly state-of-the-art facility. It will be the best such facility in the Pacific Northwest of the US.

What challenges do you foresee in our industry?

Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) have been around since the eighties, but the recent developments in smart phones, portable electronics, and also cars with advanced technology are creating an increasing demand for MEMS now. It is exciting to see that after many years, this technology is really taking off and making an impact in everybody’s life. But it will be a real challenge to duplicate the success of microelectronics, which has followed Moore’s Law for decades. MEMS often rely on physical phenomena that can’t just scaled down by a factor two every year or so.

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