MEMS are in the mainstream – so what’s next?

Mike Rosa, MEMS global product manager at Applied Materials, blogs about recent advances in MEMS, as described at the recent MEMS Executive Congress.  

Over the last 50 years computing power has migrated from the mainframe, to the desktop, to the laptop, and now, with almost-equivalent computing capability, onto mobile devices, tablets, and smart phones. 

And tomorrow? If you were in Scottsdale, AZ in November for the now semi-annual MEMS Executive Congress, you would have heard about the latest concepts in personal computing – and I mean really personal. Think body art that collects data…well, not quite body art, but an array of patches, arm bands, watches, jewelry and more, all with one goal in mind – to help quantify every aspect of our daily lives!

It’s been referred to in recent times as the “Quantified Self” or “QS Quotient” and it’s just one of the many exciting advances enabled by MEMS.

MEMS devices enable many advances in personal health care including portable (sometimes wearable) health monitors. Fast-evolving innovations from a host of companies promise even more imaginative and discretely wearable integrated solutions.

For example, personal wellness is rapidly becoming a key priority for individuals and employers alike, both as a means to improve longevity and quality of life, and to control dramatically rising health care costs.  The result is a burgeoning business in devices that enable people to continuously gauge their personal behaviors and habits and provide actionable information.   Companies like BodyMedia and WiThings are incorporating MEMS into various portable products designed to monitor and track your vital signs, which they believe will open up new and exciting markets in personal healthcare. 

Looking only slightly further into the future, wearable patches embedded with monitoring technologies that are currently available only through health care professionals will soon find their way onto the consumer market.  One such MEMS enabled offering (see images below) being developed by BodyMedia is a seven-day, disposable patch that, will measure calorie burn, activity levels, and other body metrics, creating a snapshot of lifestyle habits to guide recommendations for weight loss, sports, fitness and much more. 

A major supplier of sports and fitness products has recently debuted a wristband with a built in accelerometer to track of all your daily activity, report calories burned and allow you to track your data over time ─ oh, and did I forget to mention ─ all wirelessly from the your favorite mobile device.  And for times when you’re not running, biking, hiking or salsa dancing, start-up company Lark has also introduced a wristband technology that, with the help of MEMS, monitors and keeps a record of your sleep patterns.

Where will it end?

According to Dr. Janusz Bryzek, vice president, Development, MEMS and Sensing Solutions at Fairchild Semiconductor, it won’t!  Bryzek moderated a lunch table discussion at the MEMS Congress entitled “Roadmap to a $Trillion MEMS Market” where we debated the growth of MEMS fueled by an increasing number of consumer, industrial and medical applications. These are based on the four strongest device types to date: gyroscopes, accelerometers, microphones, and pressure sensors.  In addition to these, there was increasing support expressed for the growth of “the internet of things,” where everyday objects are not only connected to the Internet or Cloud, but also play host to a MEMS device that enables the object to collect data from its surroundings.

The consensus among the group is that the road to a $Trillion (or unit volume) market is not an easy one.  Based on the use of today’s conventional MEMS technologies, it looks like it may take the invention of many more wristbands, waistbands, head bands, patches and pills before we can truly reach that lofty goal.  That’s not to say it won’t happen, but as in most other technology segments we’re in for many exciting baby steps as we march down the road to a “$Trillion MEMS Market.” 

 Nowhere was this more evident than during the “MEMS Technology Showcase” – a segment at the Congress where companies have an opportunity to show off the latest inventions and prototypes for MEMS-based technologies.   

Sphero and Lightbohrd are two examples of novel and very exciting products that rely on MEMS, either for acceleration, gyroscope function or for ambient light sensing and external interaction.  The MEMS in these products are available today and their use is representative of the MEMS adoption we’re likely to see as new product innovations emerge. And Applied Materials continues to be committed to developing the device fabrication technologies needed to keep those innovations coming.

Industry analysts Yole Developpment currently estimate the MEMS market at just over 7.5 billion units per year, with a valuation of $11.5 billion. Their 5-year forecast shows the combined MEMS/emerging MEMS technology market at about $20 billion by 2017, with a unit volume of more than 18 billion units. Those figures represent healthy growth, but there’s still a long way to go.  It will take many more amazing inventions ─ both new applications and new MEMS device designs ─ before that 1 trillion mark becomes a reality.  

Author

Mike Rosa serves as MEMS global product manager within the 200mm equipment products group at Applied Materials. He has over 15 years of technology focused product and business development experience.

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