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Smart DIY: Why do companies design their own sensors?

Posted: 08 Oct 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:sensors? vertical integration? original equipment manufacturer?

Once they develop the right sensor for their application, they can offer it to other companies servicing the same or similar markets. "They can develop a merchant business which leverages the technology they have developed, first for their own use, for other customers. GE, for instance, has been an important supplier of MEMS pressure sensors for automotive TPMS [tyre pressure monitoring systems], but they seem no longer so strongly invested in this area and are focusing more on medical and industrial applications with their pressure sensors."

Companies make their own sensors

GE Measurement & Control provides sensing elements, devices, instruments, and systems that enable customers to monitor, protect, control, and validate critical processes and applications. It is a core technology instruments business focused on high-growth industries. (Image: GE)

Honeywell was using the same strategy with its automotive parts until recently, when it sold its entire automotive magnetic sensor business to Sensata Technology Inc., so that Honeywell could refocus its control and magnetic sensor technology for military-aerospace and industry building applications.

"Honeywell has also tried to get into cell phones with their compass," Bouchaud said. IHS teardowns found the Honeywell compass in BlackBerry phones three or four years ago. "Then they only sold magneto-resistive elements to ST, which was building the six-axis compass modules, but they've stopped as far as I know. Now they only license the IP to Chinese magnetometer start-ups, but they don't try to sell it as a part business anymore."

Consumer goods

The vertical integration trend of the industrial companies is also cross-breeding into the giant consumer companies emerging from the mobile electronics explosion, and for many of the same reasons as the older companies like GE, Honeywell, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Rafael, and BAE Systems.

"I see the same trend of vertical integration for sensor design and production at many advanced technology companies, where sensing is no longer a nice thing to have. Rather, it now has become a 'must have' as an integral differentiator for future designs," said Brian Wirth, sales director at Amphenol Advanced Sensors. "Apple, Google, Cisco, Jawbone, Nike, Microsoft, Sony, and others are already designing and producing their own sensors."

According to Wirth, there is a whole bundle of good reasons for vertically integrating from top to bottom. Most manufacturers start in the middle, with proprietary software controlling unique sensor fusion algorithms. Apple has taken the next step of designing its own sensor hub: the M7 and M8. But it is still purchasing commodity sensors, except for its fingerprint sensor (which it got when it acquired Authentec), and it is planning all sorts of proprietary modifications for Apple Pay.

"Why are they doing this? So they can control their proprietary designs, create their own IP, control functional and algorithm-based analysis using sensors and sensor combinations that result in predictive monitoring and behavioural monitoring. Much of this leads into a strategy of total system/enterprisewide Internet of Things."

Apple's purchase of Authentec for its fingerprint sensor is a perfect example of how strategic making your own sensors can become. When Apple acquired Authentec, it virtually closed the door on copycats following its lead.

"At the time of the acquisition, there were less than a handful companies able to produce fingerprint sensors for handsets," Bouchaud said. "Apple bought Authentec to secure access to the fingerprint hardware technology, but also to secure the key IP on authentication software from Authentec."

Still, the only suppliers that are in volume production of fingerprint sensors for handsets today are Authentec (captive for Apple), Validity Sensors Inc. (now part of Synaptics Inc.), and Fingerprint Cards AB.

- R. Colin Johnson
??EE Times


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