CMC Microsystems expands testing lab program to Manitoba

The University of Manitoba in Winnipeg officially opened a microelectronics research lab on Thursday — a facility accessible not only to its own students and researchers, but thousands of others via the Internet.

The university’s Advanced RF Systems Laboratory houses equipment dedicated to helping researchers test and validate radio frequency (RF) microchips that are found in common mobility devices like cell phones and PDAs. The “collaboratory” is one of four university facilities that will be used for microelectronics research. The first to open was an Advanced Digital Laboratory in the University of Toronto last year. The remaining two will be a mixed signal (digital and analogue) lab at Montreal’s McGill University and a photonics lab at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Together, the four labs will be a complete microelectronics environment, available to more than 20 Canadian universities via Canarie’s CA*net 4 high-speed Internet research network. They comprise a $23-million research facility sponsored by the Ontario Innovation Trust, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, three provincial governments and a number of other partners, including the project’s architect, CMC Microsystems.

Because the equipment is so expensive, it only makes sense to maximize the investment by making it as widely available as possible through an Internet connection, said Dr. Brian Barge, president and CEO of CMC Microsystems, the company that formed the partnership between government, the universities and various private sector partners.

“It’s important our universities be equipped with the very best design, manufacturing and testing capabilities possible,” said Barge, adding that “one of the major bottlenecks” has been a lack of microelectronics test facilities available to university students.

“If you don’t test them, you don’t know if they’re really going to work or if the research behind them made any sense.”

All the equipment in the RF lab can be controlled remotely, said Dr. Greg Bridges, the lab’s principal investigator and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Manitoba. That includes microscopes and the probes that are positioned inside the chips to test radio frequencies.

“You have to get signals into the chip and signals out of the chip and there’s specialized probes for doing that,” he explained.

The work done by students at the U of M, and by other students that use the lab remotely, could be turned into saleable intellectual property, said Bridges.

“The reason the collaboratory is there is that it fulfills the role of prototyping a concept. That’s what investors want to see: a prototype proof of concept. That will lead to potentially a start-up company or maybe licensing the technology to a company.”

“It doesn’t matter how large or small the university is, where it’s located or it’s level of funding, everybody gets access to this,” said Barge. “It’s exactly what’s needed for such a geographically distributed country.”

The estimated value of the RF lab is almost $2 million. After the University of Toronto, it is the second such lab to be opened. The other two facilities, at Queens and McGill, are currently in limited use but no official open dates have been set for them yet.

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