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MEMS chips up for innovation despite slowdown

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

Keywords:MEMS? media player? LED? LCD?

MEMS chips are still being immersed into diverse consumer applications, according to the MEMS Executive Congress, hosted by the MEMS Industry Group last Nov. 5-7 in Monterey, California. As a result, analysts at the conference predicted, the MEMS consumer market will increase from 4 percent to 5.5 percent in 2008, to about $7 billion. But as consumer spending slows down, they said the overall MEMS market will be affected and may even contract in 2009.

"In 2009, the MEMS market could face negative growth for the first time," said analyst Marlene Bourne, Bourne Research. "There will likely be at least 18 months of slow consumer growth. The killer application during the slowdown over the next 18 months to 24 months will be specific to individual companies. Meanwhile, those that will succeed will be the ones that will identify a significant need and provide a solution," she added.

New media versions on the rise
Handheld media players and handsets will all come in MEMS-enabled versions in 2009, and by 2012 nearly all consumer devices will have at least one MEMS chip, according to an analyst panel at the conference. MEMS also will lead application areas, for example, drastically cutting power needs and increasing brightness and color accuracy of flat-panel displays, starting in 2010.

The most novel MEMS application highlighted at the confab came from Pixtronix Inc. Using a MEMS shutter to meter light from a LED backlight, the Pixtronix' display integrates ultralow power (75 percent less than LCD) with ultrawide color gamut (105 percent of NTSC).

The MEMS shutter is placed inside of a flat-panel display using the same fabrication lines in common LCD displays. The shutter layer is then bonded to the LED backlight substrate without the need for polarizers or color filters. The company claims its digital MEMS shutter is 10 times brighter than regular LCDs, because it allows 60 percent to 80 percent of the LED light out through the shutter, compared with 6 percent to 8 percent from conventional LCD flat panels.

"Our digital microshutter can be run on the same lines that make LCD displays today, but at about a 10 percent cost savings," said Richard Payne, VP, microfabrication, Pixtronix.

Other member companies at the MEMS Executive Conference described many consumer devices that use or will employ MEMS chips for features from buttonless controllers to dead-reckoning navigators.

"Accelerometers are just one type of MEMS chips being integrated in many consumer devices," said Benedetto Vigna, VP and general manager, STMicroelectronics (ST) group. "I predict that by 2012 all cellphones will have accelerometers," he added.

Adhering to market needs
To meet the requirements of diverse consumer devices, ST plans to announce next week that it has created three grades of MEMS accelerometers that trade off low price for high resolution such as 6-, 8- and12bit.

Each model will have a low-power mode that lets the accelerometer to continue functioning even when a cellphone or any other consumer device goes to sleep. In standby mode, power is reduced to less than 1?A, which is 300x less than in normal operating mode. But the new "in-between" low-power mode runs at less than 10?A or 30x less than normal while continuing to supply acceleration data at outputs, albeit at a lower data rate.

ST's accelerometers are already being integrated in Nintendo's Wii and Apple's iPhone, but its new models, which measure as small as 3mm2, are targeted for non-safety automotive applications such as car alarms, as well as industrial and healthcare devices. ST also claims to be expanding its portfolio of MEMS chips by adding gyroscopes, microphones, and magnetic and pressure sensors.

Freescale Semiconductor showcased at the confab a new line of three-axis digital accelerometers and a new set of development tools for cellphones, handheld controllers and portable media players. The accelerometers measure motion in 2G, 4G and 8G ranges that make them a good match for consumer applications such as scrolling, game control and gesture-recognition functions such as "tap to mute."

Because the accelerometers measure motion in all three directions, with their own integrated ADCs, they're intended to activate functions not possible with two-axis accelerometers, such as dead reckoning for navigational devices, motion signature detection and pulse detection to control various functions, theft protection and new types of OEM-defined gestures.

The three-axis accelerometers are housed in a thin 3mm x 5mm x 1mm LGA package that is pin-compatible with existing Freescale MEMS chips, allowing designs in production to be upgraded without changing board layouts. A new demonstration board and ZigBee-based communications interface, which plugs into a USB port on a PC, can be used to develop designs with up to 16 accelerometer boards.

- R. Colin Johnson
EE Times

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