2005 may be a momentous year for MEMS, or maybe just a momentum-building year

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Jan. 21, 2005 — As a new year begins, it seems to be a good time to ask: What will 2005 bring? Within the MEMS industry, there’s always something interesting afoot, so let’s answer that question by exploring 2004′s accomplishments and developments that could shape 2005.

Accelerometers got their foot in the door with cell phones in 2004 — a huge accomplishment. But, will the use of accelerometers for peripheral applications, such as pedometers and game controllers, really catch on? Or will it take a truly feature-rich function, such as display scrolling, to make their use ubiquitous?

Either way, how much momentum can we really expect to see in terms of their integration into cell phones in 2005? Perhaps an even more intriguing question is: What impact might the newly launched tri-axis accelerometers have on this particular space?

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Gyros have become a near standard in European cars for use in electronic stability. Now it’s up to American automakers to follow Europe’s lead to maintain that momentum. But will they? Legislation in the United States could help here by mandating the use of rollover detection systems. The auto industry’s need for small and lightweight components could make MEMS gyros a top candidate in such systems.

But legislation takes time, and mandates sometimes are scheduled to kick in several years after passage to accommodate automakers’ development cycles. In the meantime, this might be the year that MEMS gyros make a breakthrough for use in camcorders.

It also may be the year for pressure sensors. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is expected to make its final ruling in March advocating the use of the direct (i.e. MEMS) method of monitoring tire pressure. NHTSA alluded to this last summer, but the market didn’t take that as a green light. An official ruling should result in a spike in sales of pressure sensors.

As for other MEMS sensors, about half a dozen companies are diligently working to develop sensors for the detection of biological and chemical weapons, but as the war in Iraq drags on, it appears that the urgency has abated somewhat. Don’t expect breakthroughs of significance this year because there is still a fairly large disconnect between what’s technologically feasible and what the market expects.

In the meantime, will this be the year for wireless sensing networks? It’s probably a bit soon here, too, although great strides are being made to a critically important piece of that puzzle, the operating software. Now, if only there were a power source small enough to allow end-users to take advantage of the tiny form factor of these sensors. …

There’s no doubt that microphones will have a breakout year in 2005 — probably in the second half — as they become integrated into cell phones. The question is, what’s next? MP3 players look like the next logical choice, but don’t count out automotive telematics.

Several optical MEMS companies are doing very well, but a real sales breakthrough isn’t expected until optical networking gains traction, which may take another year or so. However, watch for optical MEMS to make their move as the new technology core for cell phone displays in 2005. Even though it may be for only one or two handset models, it would be an auspicious start. In addition, the competition for optical MEMS in digital TV is expected to start heating up this year, although we may not see tangible results until 2006. While Texas Instruments may have portable projectors and home theater wrapped up, digital TV is still a wide-open race.

Overall, it appears that growth in the automotive and computing markets, longtime mainstays of the MEMS industry, may be cooling. The good news is that the consumer and communications segments are ready, willing, and (almost) able to pick up the pace, as the above indicators point out. Interestingly enough, robotics is another area to watch in 2005 — not for industrial applications, bur rather, for consumer end-uses.

MEMS product development clearly occurs in waves, and the next wave of products on the horizon became much clearer in late 2004: cooling chips and fuel cells. Although In-Stat/MDR doesn’t expect to see any technological or commercial breakthroughs in 2005, it’s quite possible that more companies may enter the market, as is typical for emerging device segments.

Although the point of this column was to look ahead to 2005, I can’t help but look back at 2004 and designate my pick for the most novel product of the year: Pria Diagnostics’ Element, an over-the-counter male fertility indicator for in-home testing. It uses an optical MEMS component in conjunction with an LED to read fluorescent chemicals that bind to a sample of sperm.

While the end-user is men, of course, it should be marketed to women, too. I have no doubt that they’ll be the ones who will ultimately buy the $40 kit, which is currently awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval. What will the industry think of next?

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