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MEMS fire up component revolution

Posted: 16 Apr 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:MEMS? industry semiconductor? sensor?

Semiconductor vendors are in either in the MEMS sector or will be out of business; that was the stark assertion that came out of a panel session at the recent Globalpress Electronics Summit.

"The interesting thing about MEMS is that it is part of an evolution that started 200 years ago with the Industrial Revolution where energy was converted in to motion. The next major step was computation, the invention of the transistor. The third major revolution with the machine is all about sensors," said Vijay Ullal, group president at Maxim Integrated Products Inc.

"It you can combine all threemotion, computation and sensingyou could have a truly intelligent being that, maybe, could rival of human beings," added Ullal. "MEMS is not just a new gadget but the third massive transformation of our society. Any company that is in semiconductors now must do MEMS or go away."

"Maxim likes the MEMS market because it is really fragmented," said Ullal. "Lots of customers and you can differentiate your products, which fits in with our model. We are beginning to enter the MEMS market and are starting out in areas not dominated by the established players. We are into resonators and micro relays and eventually we will expand beyond this. It is not the MEMS device itself that is of most interest, it is the combination of the device, the signal processing and algorithms. The reason we are getting interested is it is a market with tremendous growth."

Asked by EE Times if Maxim would look to acquire to expand its MEMS activities Ullal said that it would probably be better to find a good partner rather than acquire, as acquisitions can be quite disruptive. "The last thing the MEMS industry needs right now is to lose its entrepreneurial spirit. You see a lot of progress being made by little companies and they can be good at innovative things."

MEMS explosion
A more long-standing member of the MEMS industry is Analog Devices Inc., which has been working on products for around 20 years. Mark Martin, VP and general manager of the MEMS division at ADI explained how there has been an explosion in applications "not just automotive and consumer but now moving in to industrial and medical and instrumentation."

Eric Eisenhut, VP of sales and marketing at Kionix, which focuses on inertial sensors, explained that, "The user interface experience, if it is done well, is fundamental to the product. You have to understand the fundamental physics and mathematics that underlies sensing and we don't expect our customers to understand that."

A major concern for potential customers has been a perceived high price that MEMS demand. "As the devices go in to higher volume consumer based devices there is an need to bring the cost down," agreed Scott Smyser, VP and general manager of VTI Technologies. "We have got rid of the external packaging and put the MEMS directly with the conditioning ASIC flip-chipped together."

"The manufacturing process is clearly relevant but it is also important to understand the application the device is going into," added Eisenhut. "We don't want to commoditize, relying solely on the delivery and price of the component " but by understanding the application integrate associated functionality on to the ASIC," he said.

"Historically we have used quite complex processes that have run in lower volumes," said ADI's Martin. "That has clearly changed and I think we have as an industry been quite successful at reducing costs when you look at the volumes that are run today. The processes are maturing and the yields, that have been a significant challenge in MEMS, are coming in line with those associated with traditional semiconductors processes.

There is a learning curve associated with using the technology. Some customers have previously just bought three-axis accelerometers on price. Customers are finding out that not all devices are created equal; the user experience can vary dramatically depending on features and precision of the sensing element. Over time as the market matures there will segmentation, a very low cost market as well as other segments as the product portfolios proliferate."

So is size reduction an opportunity? "Moore's Law will not work for MEMS," said Ullal. "You have a certain mass and you cannot shrink it beyond that. It should be pretty clear to everybody that Moore's Law, if it is not dead all ready, is going to die. The way to add functionality to a system is through 3D integration."

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