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Olympics ushers in new MEMS era

Posted: 12 Aug 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Waving Torch? MEMS torch? LED? Beijing Olympics?

When a cascade of mesmerizing tableaux unfolded on the floor of the "Bird's Nest" at the Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony, TV viewers couldn't help but notice the intense flickering of what seemed like 92,000 red, green, blue, yellow and white dots.

Clearly, the multi-colored lights were not the usual camera flashes seen in stadiums during any big sports event. TV cameras did not eschew close-ups on the flashing lights, nor did NBC's commentators explain them. In fact, the cheerful background was the effect created by spectators waving MEMS-equipped electronic toy torches known as "Waving Torch."

EE Times has learned that every one of 92,000 people in the stadium, including U.S. President George Bush, received an electronic torch along with instructions to coordinate waving in the stands with professional performers on the field during the opening ceremony.

The MEMS-featured torch is definitely not your ordinary flash light, although it can be mistaken for one from a distance. Electronic torches in Beijing actually spelled out messages and images, such as the "five official Olympic mascots (known as Fuwa), images of many different sports, the Olympic logo and Beijing's Olympic logo, Welcome to Beijing, and many Chinese characters," according to Memsic CEO Yang Zhao.

The Waving Torch uses an accelerometer, supplied by Memsic, to detect the beginning and end points of a movement as the torch is waved. On the front edge of the torch, the linear array of LEDs spells out the pre-loaded message in midair by synchronizing the LEDs' illumination with its position in space.

The actual use of tens of thousands Waving Torches at the opening ceremony marked a triumph for Memsic's Zhao, a Chinese-born CEO at the Andover, Mass.-based company. Zhao came to the United States more than 20 years ago to pursue his Ph.D. at Princeton University where he studied under Prof. Daniel Tsui, who won the 1998 Nobel Prize in physics.

The irony, though, is that even though Memsic had a contract with the Chinese Olympic Committee for the Waving Torch project, and the Chinese-born CEO worked tirelessly with Chinese officials, Zhao himself wasn't sure until the very last minute if the Chinese Olympic Committee would allow spectators to use the device.

Among concerns expressed by Chinese officials ranged from the logistics of building a massive number of electronic torches and delivering them in time, to the security fear that programmable torches might be hacked, thus spelling out the wrong sentiment during the opening ceremony.

No room for mistakes
In a monumental event like the Olympics opening ceremony where not a single mistake could be tolerated by the Chinese government, Zhao was worried about the potential risk posed by renegade Waving Torch-bearers.

In mid July, Memsic preemptively disclosed during the company's Q2 financial guidance that "the Olympic torch project was cancelled" due to the recent earthquake near the factory in China that was assembling the toy torches using PCBs supplied by Memsic.

That wasn't the whole truth. Indeed, Memsic, behind the scenes, was still scrambling to ship tens of thousands of Waving Torches to the stadium.

Memsic, which originally made the electronic torch's modules integrated with its own MEMS chips, continued to assemble Waving Torches, using its "own channel" in China.

Zhao, for the moment, is not disclosing either the cost associated with the last minute "rush" process or whether the company will eventually profit from China's Waving Torch project.

Thermal sense operating tech
Regardless of profit and loss, the Beijing Olympics represent a priceless opportunity for Memsic to promote itself as a leading MEMS technology provider in consumer products.

The Olympic project showcases Memsic's use of a unique thermal sense operating principle that is said to offer superior motion sensing performance.

More specifically, this MEMS sensor operation is based on the thermal laws of convection, and operates like other accelerometers having a static component. The stationary component used in Memsic' accelerometers is a hot air (gas).

"A single heat source, centered in the silicon chip, creates a thermal gradient and thus a density gradient of the gas in the sealed package," according to Memsic. When external forces are applied to the device (such as acceleration, deceleration, gravity, vibration, etc.), the gas moves accordingly within the package due to its miniscule inertial mass. The applied force is detected by sensing and measuring changes in temperature around the heat source.

The design has no moving parts, making its MEMS highly reliable, according to Memsic. No other MEMS supplier can boast this technology, Zhao stressed.

CMOS process
More importantly, the technology enables Memsic to integrate the sensor and control electronics into one chip using a standard CMOS process. Traditionally, MEMS chips requires the building of a special semiconductor fab, because the MEMS process demands the etching out of moving parts in three dimensions on silicon chips.

Memsic claims that it is "the first and the only company" to pull off integration of an accelerometer with mixed signal processing circuitry on a single chip.

That and Memsic's experience in the Waving Torch project could open the door to higher-yield commercial MEMS products at substantially lower cost.

As more MEMS chip vendors start looking for cost-effective MEMS chip production options, a competition for MEMS chip foundry service business is already heating up.

For example, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. announced its full scale entry into MEMS market a few months ago. TSMC is clearly positioning itself as a premier MEMS foundry. Zhao noted that TSMC is using Memsic as its prime example.

TSMC has been an investor in Memsic through Investar Capital Inc. Memsic also uses TSMC as the company's "sole foundry for CMOS wafers," said Zhao.

While the company buys CMOS wafers from TSMC, Memsic, spun out of Analog Devices Inc. in 1999, established early on, its own high volume MEMS manufacturing infrastructure in Wuxi, China.

By establishing a wholly-owned subsidiary, called Memsic Semiconductor Ltd, in China and maintaining technology development in the United States, Memsic appears to enjoy the best of the both worlds.

While the Chinese subsidiary manages engineering and manufacturing, the parent company in the United States maintains close relations with TSMC in Taiwan. Memsic's U.S. presence also allows TSMC to avoid any scrutiny by the Taiwanese government over TSMC's direct investment in China's chip companies.

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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