MEMS State of the Union

Roger Grace

As a strategic marketing consultant specializing in MEMS, I intend to provide Sensors' readers with an up to the minute assessment addressing some of the most interesting, important and critical news in the MEMS industry and its associated technologies.

I will address here, from a commercialization perspective, a number of the hot topics in the hopes that you can give me some feedback.

Since the first manifestation of MEMS at Bell Labs in 1955, many MEMS companies have been created. While some went out of business during the optical telecom implosion of 2001-2003, the good news is that, in my opinion, MEMS has become a viable and high-volume technology only over the past couple of years. This has been driven by a strong demand in the automotive and consumer electronics sector.

MEMS and Automotive
The first high-volume MEMSapplication was back in the 60's in the form of a manifold absolute pressure sensor (MAP) that measured the mixture of fuel and air to maximize fuel efficiency and engine performance and to reduce emissions. Today, over 30 million per year of these devices are used. In addition, almost every vehicle produced in Japan, Western Europe, and North America uses MEMS accelerometers as a critical part of their active passenger restraint systems. I heard on TV the other day that a $13,000 automobile had 6 airbags. These systems have become so popular and MEMS so inexpensive (less than $2.25 for a two-axis device) that they are not only used in higher-priced vehicles (where they were first introduced) but in virtually all vehicles. This is a great victory for this technology. Analog Devices alone produces over 1.2 million of these devices every week to support a market of over 100 million units yearly. Numerous other players sell into this market including Bosch(Germany) , Denso (Japan) and Freescale Semiconductor(U.S.).

Continuing the trend, the newest killer application is tire pressure monitoring (TPM). Legislation has been passed that requires all vehicles sold in the U.S. and weighing less than 1000 lb. to have tire pressure monitoring systems by September 1, 2007. Although legislation in Japan/Asia and Europe has not been passed, automakers are interested in creating vehicles with these systems on board. With the approximately 60 million new cars produced every year at four tires apiece, this is a good opportunity for MEMS pressure sensors and GE NovaSensor/Schrader, Bosch and others are aggressively pursuing this opportunity. These are only two of many such opportunities for MEMS in automobiles. My research has concluded that there are more than 60 other opportunities for MEMS applications in automotive systems from vehicle dynamic control (gyros), navigation (gyros), and headlight leveling ( accelerometers). For those interested in knowing more about this topic, I recommend a visit to the 11th Annual Advanced Microsystems for Automotive Applications (AMAA) that will be held in Berlin, Germany, from May 7–8, 2007. Alternatively, you can click here for a white paper on the subject.

MEMS and Consumer Products
Recently, the dramatically falling prices of MEMS has led to their use in high-volume consumer electronic applications. Market statistics show that the mobile phone market crossed the 1 billion unit level in 2006. I consider that mobile phones are perhaps the biggest opportunity for MEMS devices as they exist today (and for the immediate future). Applications in phones include microphones/speakers (Knowles Acoustics), accelerometers (Analog Devices) for functions such as scrolling, gyroscopes (Invensense) for in-phone camera-lens stabilization, system timing products/oscillators (SiTime for myriad functions), and RF MEMS for band switching, filters(TeraVicta), and displays (Qualcom/Iridigm). The challenge for MEMS manufacturers will be to meet the stringent price constraints demanded by the phone companies while still maintaining necessary reliability and product performance.

Other applications in the consumer sector for MEMS devices include digital cameras (gyros), games (accelerometers), and home weather stations (pressure sensors).

The future is very bright for MEMS, especially in the "killer application" sector. Whereas in the past only a handful of these high-volume applications existed, I expect to see many more opportunities for MEMS in many other areas, including biomedical applications.

For those interested in learning more on this topic please attend my all-day MEMS/Nanotechnology session at Sensors Expo on June 11, 2007.

(Author's note: Although I have mentioned several sensor companies in this discussion, space constraints prevent a more complete listing.)