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MEMS evolution: coming full circle

Posted: 16 May 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:MEMS in medicine? applications of MEMS? market needs and evolution of MEMS?

Bourne: It's been 30 years since MEMS pressure sensors first moved into the medical market. Yet today, medicine remains the last great frontier of opportunity.

As I look back at the commercialization of MEMS devices over the past decades, I'm amazed at the level of innovation that's taken place. But there's still a long way to go. It's been 30 years since MEMS pressure sensors first moved into the medical market. Yet today, medicine remains the last great frontier of opportunity.

In the interim, MEMS sensors and actuators of all types have conquered the automotive and industrial markets, with consumer products not too far behind.

Interestingly, even with the ongoing development of new MEMS devices, those which are most mature technologicallypressure sensors and accelerometerscontinue to find new areas of growth. The migration from wired to wireless systems is driving this. However, with the MEMS industry closing in on sales of $8 billion per year in 2007, it's no longer all about the product per se, but rather, the application.

With a shift in markets comes a required change in overall design approach. Yesterday's automotive and industrial uses required a focus on the sensing element to fulfill a specific function. Today's consumer applications require broader thinking about fully embedded systems--beyond the sensor itself. Microcontrollers and software drivers are now equally important components. Tomorrow's medical applications go a step further. Design engineers must also take into account the human body and its effect on electronics, all while remaining transparent to a patient's activity level and lifestyle.

Along the way, the integration of MEMS devices of all kinds into an increasingly diverse array of applications continues to shape the design of new products. This raises an intriguing question: Are MEMS devices driving new product design, or is product innovation simply being enhanced by MEMS' various capabilities?

Addressing a market need
The answer is a little bit of both. Either way, design engineers must continue to focus on meeting a real need, as opposed to simply creating products for the sake of engineering ingenuity. While the Nintendo Wii or a walking bi-pedal robot may not appear to meet a specific market need, next-generation user interfaces are growing in importance, especially as society ages. Fingers that can no longer push buttons are better able to simply move an object in a particular way, doctors can more accurately monitor their patients, and independence can be maintained for a longer period of time.

That's the real beauty of MEMS devices. Interestingly, that also takes us back to the beginning. MEMS first made their mark in the medical and industrial markets with pressure sensors. Over the years the product offerings have evolved so that industry could expand into automotive (accelerometers, pressure sensors, infrared sensors and more), communications (microphones and RF MEMS components for cellphones), computing (ink jet printing) and the consumer market (optical MEMS for displays).

However, we've now come full circle. Once again, industrial applications are where the real near-term growth lies. Except this time, the pressure sensors are wireless. As for the future? It's all about medicine. Except this time, the pressure sensors are not only wireless, but implantable as well.

The more things change, the more they stay the same; back to the future, indeed.

- Marlene Bourne
President and Principal Analyst
Bourne Research LLC

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