Em Williams is quick to admit it – the microelectronic manufacturing (MEMS) program at Lorain County Community College is challenging. The engineering pathway, which offers both associate and bachelor of applied science degrees, delves into computer science, electronics, chemistry and mechanics, all on a microscopic scale. Understanding these complex concepts did not always come easily to Williams.
“It truly is one day at a time for me,” Williams says. “I love what I’m doing, but I’m putting in immense amounts of study time.”
It seems like Williams is also quick to project modesty, too. Since starting the MEMS program in 2020, Williams has seized a string of opportunities that have helped her build an impressive resume and, more importantly, bolster her confidence.
Today, Williams is working on her most recent opportunity – conducting research required for a $1,000 Ohio Space Grant Consortium Community College scholarship funded by NASA. She hasn’t decided yet on a title for the report, but Williams will be researching the accelerating trend of miniaturizing components in the MEMS industry.
“Moore’s Law predicts that the processing power of a computer doubles every two years, and as a result, increases the number of transistors an integrated circuit chip can contain. And that rule has stayed consistent for decades,” Williams says. “But now we’ve gotten to the point where these components are sub-millimeters by sub-millimeters.”
Williams says the components have become so small they’re impossible for humans to handle and solder effectively. That’s where automation comes in. Robots and machines work together on an assembly line to pick up, place and solder the components in a precise and efficient manner.
But Williams wonders if today’s commercially available automated machines are equipped to handle current and future technological advancements that continue to shrink the components. The Manufacturing Electronics & Rework Institute for Training (MERIT) lab in the Richard Desich SMART Commercialization Center will give Williams a setting for her research. Her research partner will be the Panasonic Placement Machine, which uses tiny vacuum nozzles to pick up miniaturized components and place them onto printed circuit boards.
“We have these nozzles that are able to pick up many sizes of components,” Williams says. “But do we have nozzles that can pick up the smallest components on the markets?”
Williams hopes her research findings will inform the entire MEMS industry whether today’s machines can keep pace with tomorrow’s shrinking components.
The project will add even more time to Williams’ already intense study schedule, but she’s ready for the challenge and familiar with the process as this is her second NASA funded scholarship.
When Johnny Vanderford, LCCC assistant professor of MEMS and director of MERIT, approached Williams about the first scholarship application and a research topic – the long-term health effects of lead solder and flux inhalation in humans – she didn’t think she should apply.
“There was not a thing in my head that said I was the least bit qualified,” Williams says.
Still, with Vanderford’s encouragement, Williams submitted her application and was accepted. When she began her research she didn’t have much interest in the topic, but through the process she became engrossed in the material.
“I ended up falling in love with the project,” Williams says. “Going from the base-level knowledge of fumes not being good to inhale, to where I am now is amazing.”
In finalizing her research paper, Williams realized her ability to take complex scientific topics and make the information digestible to those who know nothing about the topic, while still interesting and credible to those who do.
“I was able to display the information in a way that uses jargon without excluding the people who know nothing about electronics,” Williams says. “My entire family has read my research paper, from my grandma who didn’t graduate high school to my aunt and uncle who are engineers.”
In March 2021 NASA published Williams’ research paper as part of its Annual Student Research Symposium. Since then, local companies have distributed it to their engineering departments to underscore the importance of safety protocols, like using a fume extractor and wearing a face mask, that protect workers’ health.
Williams’ pride in her work is fueling her drive to complete her associate degree – she has one course left to take in spring – and continue on to earn her bachelor of applied science degree. And while her future career is uncertain, Williams knows she’d like to help people and hopes she can do so through research.
“My research might be the difference between a worker having to retire at age 45 because they developed respiratory complications from inhaling rosin among other toxins within flux and solder every day, and someone choosing to wear a mask and putting another layer between them and the smoke,” Williams says. “Even though I might not get to see the benefit that I provide firsthand, I’d like to think that it’s still going to be there.”