MEMS the word in consumer electronics


MEMS components have been in projectors since 1996 and in TVs since 2002, but the cell phone market is the latest, greatest frontier

By Sarah Fister Gale

MEMS chips are finally small enough, cheap enough, and rugged enough to take their place in the world of consumer electronics. Motion sensors, microphones, gyroscopes and accelerometers are currently flourishing in consumers’ cell phones, digital cameras, gaming devices, laptops and other devices.

What’s more, experts say, the trend is just getting started. MEMS manufacturers - both the large, fully-integrated behemoths and the small, fabless outfits - are gearing up for a breakout year in 2007.

“The main reason that MEMS components are popular now for consumer electronics is that they offer sizes and functions not previously available,” said Jean Christophe Eloy, general manager of Yole Développement, a MEMS market research company in Lyon, France. “The components are also smaller and can be soldered directly onto the circuit boards. That offers a real technology and price advantage.”

Small companies like Knowles Acoustics, Akustica and MEMSTech were first out of the gate with MEMS microphones - and Knowles leads the pack in volume - but now big players like Infineon are edging in. The German juggernaut announced its silicon microphone, shown here, in November. Image courtesy of Infineon
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The latest forecasts from Yole indicate that the MEMS market will grow from $5.1 billion in 2006 to $9.7 billion by 2010, thanks in large part to consumer electronics applications.

“In response to this transition to consumer markets, many MEMS manufacturing companies are changing their business strategies to accommodate the low-cost, high-volume demand,” Eloy said.

Can you hear me now?

The acceleration of MEMS sales in consumer product categories in 2007 and beyond will involve both continuous growth in existing markets - such as inkjet print heads, pressure sensors and microphones - as well as huge growth in new applications for any device that might offer a better man-machine interface. (Think tilt navigation, for instance.)

Since 2004, the industry has seen increasing sales of MEMS devices across multiple consumer applications, with MEMS microphones for cell phones leading the pack. The market for MEMS microphones in cell phones alone is forecast to grow from 60 million units in 2005 to more than 350 million units in 2008; and overall MEMS microphone volumes will top 432 million units in 2008, according to a September 2005 Yole report. A similar growth rate in the speaker sector is expected to propel the MEMS microspeaker market.

Knowles Acoustics in Itasca, Ill., which shipped its first MEMS microphone in 2003, has emerged as the top provider of MEMS acoustic components, and recently announced shipment of its 300 millionth SiSonic surface mount MEMS microphone, according to Jeff Niew, Knowles vice president and general manager.

Established applications like inkjet heads won’t grow as fast as some of the new applications for MEMS in consumer electronics. Source: Yole Développement
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The company expects to have shipped its 500 millionth microphone by the middle of 2007 with continuous rapid growth in this market over the coming years, thanks in large part to the proliferation of cell phones. “The cell phone market is larger than all the other markets for MEMS components combined,” Niew said. “This year alone 970 million cell phones will be purchased...The volume is staggering.”

Investment in high volume production fabs has supported the increased popularity of these components and allowed for lower costs and smaller dimension units than previously possible, Niew says. To further stabilize costs and allow for ongoing rapid innovation, Knowles builds every new generation microphone using its original platform. “The lifespan of our products is 8-to-20 months,” he said. “We can’t waste time reinventing platforms every time we release a new model.”

The Holy Grail is in your hand

Microphones are not the only MEMS components benefiting from the cell phone market. In fact, cell phone manufacturers promise to be among the largest users of multiple MEMS devices, as they pack more and more features into thinner and smaller phones.

Gyroscopes, RF switches, and oscillators to replace quartz all offer compelling uses for cell phones, Eloy says. These components will be used to eliminate blurred photos, protect data against trauma, lengthen battery life, enhance GPS tracking, create more robust motion sensing menu interfaces, and more.

The development of MEMS for consumer electronics is one of many industry drivers that are generating increased demand for MEMS foundry services. Source: Yole Développement
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A case in point is InvenSense, which is tapping into the cell phone market for MEMS devices with its dual axis gyroscopes originally intended for image stabilization for digital cameras and camcorders. But today that market has exploded because of cell phones, 40 percent of which feature digital cameras. The gyros can also be used to enhance location-based services and navigation tools with better GPS accuracy, and enable smarter user-interfaces using hand motions and gestures as commands for more natural interaction.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company entered the MEMS market three years ago with a focus on consumer applications right from the start. “Historically, MEMS companies take years to develop a product and begin with industrial applications, but we bucked the trend,” said CEO Steve Nasiri. He credits the massive influx of capital into MEMS research in 2000 for the technology advances and ability to ramp up with a high volume, low cost approach. “MEMS went from a secret formula to a widely accepted semiconductor model in a very short amount of time.”

At the same time, demand for image stabilization has increased with the proliferation of camcorders and digital still cameras. “As the technology improved zoom and pixel rates, stabilization became critical,” he said. “They needed the gyroscope to cancel out the hand jitters that caused image blurring.”

Mobile device form factors draw on MEMS for everything from microphones to image stabilization to micro fuel cells for power. Source: Yole Développement
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Today, 35 percent of point-and-shoot cameras on the market use MEMS-based image stabilization technology, he said, and Nasiri predicts that by 2009 this will be a standard feature in all still and moving cameras. Industry projections also forecast that camera phones offering three megapixels and more are expected to reach 300 million units by 2008, creating another booming market for MEMS technology. “Cell phones are the holy grail of the MEMS world,” Nasiri said.

Nasiri says InvenSense is shipping dual axis integrated gyroscopes for less than $3 per unit and can produce thousands of gyroscopes on a single 6-inch wafer with integrated electronics. “We are already producing at maximum capacity and expect to have shipped several million units by early 2007,” he said.

The new game in town

Outside of the cell phone market, a more recent and highly publicized application of motion sensing MEMS components is in the latest generation of gaming controllers. The much anticipated Nintendo Wii features a wireless motion control device that promises to transform game play from a passive stationary experience to an interactive one, with gamers swinging virtual tennis rackets, wielding invisible swords and strumming interactive air guitars all thanks to accelerometers from STMicroelectronics and Analog Devices.

The sensors in the controller detect the motion and tilt of a player’s hand in three dimensions and respond to changes in direction, speed, and acceleration, converting those movements into immediate game action.

“These sensors will change the way people play,” said Benedetto Vigna, MEMS business unit director for STMicroelectronics in Milan, Italy. “It makes them feel like they are really in the game itself.”

Nintendo sold 600,000 of the new Wii consoles in its first eight days on the market and expected to sell four million in the United States and Canada alone in the six weeks leading up to the end of 2006.

Vigna attributes the popular innovation to three recent changes in MEMS sensor manufacturing - the dimensions are smaller, they require less power and they cost substantially less than they did just a few years ago.

“We’ve broken the prejudice that MEMS components are inaccessible,” he said. “We’ve done the innovation and brought down the cost structure to allow for large volume production at lower costs.”

The company recently announced it has inaugurated a new 200mm wafer fabrication line dedicated to MEMS devices at its manufacturing site in Agrate, near Milan. The new line will manufacture accelerometers, gyroscopes, microphones and pressure sensors. “Using the 200mm wafers will further reduce unit costs and accelerate both the expansion of current applications and the development of new MEMS markets,” Vigna said.

The future

As the technology behind MEMS continues to improve, new and better devices will continue to transform the way consumers use and interact with their electronics. Infineon Technologies in Munich, Germany, recently entered the market with a MEMS microphone that can withstand temperatures of up to 260 degrees Celsius and is intended to be more resistant to vibration and shock than conventional microphones. Due to the high temperature-resistance, the microphone can be soldered without difficulty onto any standard PCB and is intended for use on fully automated production lines common to mass market consumer products.

Looking beyond 2007, the possible applications for MEMS devices in consumer electronics is limited only by imagination and consumers’ hunger for information and entertainment at their fingertips, Eloy says.

Nasiri predicts that by 2008 the industry will have perfected a six-axis inertial measurement unit that can fit in the same space as a dual axis model and deliver a more complete range of motion sensing capabilities for the same cost. “It will be a much more realistic interface between man and machine,” he said.