Think Outside the Chip: MEMS-Based Systems Solutions

E-mail Roger Grace

MEMS-based systems solutions are, as their name suggests, MEMS sensors, actuators, or structures that are incorporated along with signal conditioning, processing, power management electronics, and communications and used to solve specific application challenges. For the past 18 months, I have been on a journey to spread the word on MEMS-based system solutions (MBSS).

Why should you care about MEMS-based system solutions? If you are a developer or user of systems that incorporate MEMS devices, MBSS principles hold the key to attaining your objective in a manner that is cost-conscious, robust, and lessens your time-to-market. Loosely defined, MBSS provides approaches that address the system front end—including multiple MEMS sensors/ actuators/structures—and marries them with signal processing electronics e.g., ASICs, DSPs, and microcontrollers. Additionally, in the mid-section we have energy supply, creation, and storage devices. In the back end, we have communications devices including those for wireless or wired networks. All of this is embraced by packaging, interconnectivity, and thermal management. Finally we have the often-overlooked issue of testing. All of this is driven by the concept of system design and especially system co-design as we begin to understand how all of these elements interact. Armed with these elements as tools in their toolkit, developers have access to an array of system-based approaches with which to address the myriad applications in which MEMS sensors/actuators and structures can be used.

In addition to writing a number of articles for a variety of U.S. and European technical publications (please refer to my Web site), I have also been presenting at various conferences, including the annual Smart Systems Integration Conference (SSI) that was held in Como, Italy on March 23 and 24, 2010. Smart System Integration correlates with MBSS; although the titles may be different, the basic idea is the same. It is "more than MEMS" that is needed to solve application challenges. The more than 60 speakers at SSI provided thoughtful and insightful presentations on many of the projects that their organizations were currently developing that address this issue. In July 2006, the European Union funded a major program named the European Technology Program for Smart System Integration (EPoSS) whose goal is to facilitate the integration of electronics and packaging to create solutions that can be commercialized and that works by creating alliances between various suppliers in the value chain of the automotive, aerospace, telecommunications, logistics/RFID, and medtech application sectors.

At Sensors Expo 2010 on Monday, June 7, I have organized and will chair an all-day pre-conference on this topic. For 2010, I have invited a number of key individuals representing major international suppliers of MEMS technology and applications of MEMS. The session will address many of these system elements as well as some of the current and planned applications that adopt these principles. In addition to the previously stated cost, robustness and time-to-market benefits, we can see how this approach also enables the creation of designs that minimize size, weight, and power consumption. These issues are of great importance in the consumer electronics market, which has now become the fastest growing sector of the MEMS market as a whole.

The selection of speakers and topics scheduled for this session will provide attendees with a great deal of knowledge and a keen perspective on the issues facing the selection and integration of these functional elements as well as a sense of the tradeoffs and available system optimization options. In addition, a number of the talks will discuss some of the many current and future applications of this systems approach, including automotive tire pressure monitoring, game controllers, chromatography and spectrometry systems for chemical and bio analysis, and machinery condition monitoring. My presentation provides a number of MBSS case studies that address these applications.

Of the two keynotes, Professor Gesner's talk will address a number of applications currently being developed at Fraunhofer Chemnitz while Dr. Peter Hartwell of HP Labs will discuss how HP has developed an ultra-sensitive accelerometer to support the monitoring of land-based oil and natural gas drilling projects. I personally consider the HP application truly significant because it demonstrates the high leverage capability that a MEMS device can provide to a systems solution (which in the case of HP brings three different divisions into the overall solution approach). I consider this the electronic analogy of the "horse shoe nail" concept.

To conclude the session, the panel discussion "Integration Tradeoffs for a Design-for-Manufacturing World" will address issues and critical success factors for the commercialization of MBSS. Since the ultimate outcome of the MBSS approach is the commercialization of these solutions, design for manufacturing (and test) is critical to create value for the suppliers and users of this approach.

I look forward to seeing you at this exciting and informative "Think Outside the Chip: MEMS-Based Systems Solutions" June 7 all-day preconference session at Sensors Expo.

Roger H. Grace is president of Roger Grace Associates (RGA), a Naples Florida-based marketing consulting firm specializing in high technology, which he founded in 1982. His background includes over 40 years in analog circuit design engineering, manufacturing engineering, application engineering, project management, product marketing, and technology consulting. He can be reached at 239-596-8738,